Recruitment and retention continue to be the biggest challenge for Mercy Flight Inc., especially in its ground operations in Genesee County, Mercy EMS, said Scott P. Wooton, executive VP and treasurer of the Buffalo-based non-profit.
On Monday, Wooton delivered the agency's annual report to the Human Services Committee of the County Legislature.
It's a competitive job environment with record-low unemployment in the region and rising wages throughout the nation, and not as many young people are choosing an EMT career path, he said.
"As wages continue to rise in part-time and even entry-level positions in other industries, it's imperative that the EMS system is able to continue to offer competitive wages and benefits for long-term sustainability," Wooton said.
It's difficult to remain competitive, Wooton said, when the Federal government is not increasing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to keep up with rising expenses.
"The stress on the EMS system as a whole could approach a breaking point," he said. "This is almost verbatim what we had in our report last year. It continues to be the number one challenge in EMS."
The pandemic has also made recruitment and retention more of a challenge.
"We feel that there may be folks who are choosing other occupations as opposed to one which will put them in the way of this virus and other such situations," Wooton said.
Mercy Flight recently gave its employees an across-the-board 5.9 percent raise, he told the committee.
"We intend to continue to champion the courageous men and women who do choose EMS as their way of life, and will lead the charge ensuring that they're adequately compensated for their service," Wooton said.
As for numbers for the fiscal year, Mercy Flight was called upon 209 times in Genesee County. Of those, 123 resulted in patient transports. There were 72 of those 209 calls for service canceled by the requesting agency and 14 canceled due to weather.
For Mercy EMS, there were more than 10,000 calls for service resulting in more than 7,000 patient contacts. Those contacts included both transports and lift assists.
"These figures are down about five percent as compared to pre-COVID numbers," Wooton said. "We feel that essentially, some patients would rather choose to delay care at times, especially during the pandemic, rather than having our service coming and assist them. Certainly, we tried to make it a point of public information that's not the right thing to do. When you need an ambulance, when you feel you need an ambulance, certainly you need to call and at the very least let our first responders give you sort of a checkout and see what your condition is."
The pandemic has also hampered community outreach, Wooton said. There have been fewer safety training classes and events, fewer ground training sessions for firefighters, fewer career days, and fewer DWI drills at high schools.
"Those are very impactful, and we were able to fit in a few in the previous fiscal year," he said. "All were canceled the year before. We're looking forward to getting back and doing those again, as well as our participation in various third-party open houses in recruitment demonstrations."
Wooton also addressed the recent fatal accident in Elba that claimed the life of Mercy Flight Pilot James Sauer.
"This is the first time that this has ever happened, and God willing, the last time that it will ever happen that we've lost one of our own in the line of duty," Wooton said.
He had just come to the meeting from Sauer's funeral in Churchville.
See also: Mercy Flight pilot killed in Elba crash on Tuesday lauded as 'top-class human'
He said Mercy Flight voluntarily grounded its aircraft out of an "overabundance of caution and safety" following the accident, and Mercy Flight Central has been filling in for emergency ambulance service.
"We suspended all of our flights not only just to ensure that we're able to ensure the mechanical functioning of our helicopters, but also to give our providers time to process and integrate."
Mercy Flight tentatively plans to return to normal operations on Thursday, he said.
Photo above: Scott P. Wooton presents Mercy Flight's annual report to Genesee County Legislature's Human Services Committee Monday. Photo by Howard Owens.