A big problem, said Woodstock EMT Angela Spinelli, is that nobody is entering the EMS field. The demand and the supply aren’t matching up. There just aren’t enough people becoming paramedics or EMTs. And there’s a high turnover rate. “Maybe they were a paramedic, and now they’ve gone to PA (physician’s assistant) school, or now they’ve become a nurse. They’re leaving the industry,” Spinelli said. “So everybody’s fighting over the same talent pool.”
The average career of a paramedic is five years. They go where they can make the most money, Spinelli said. “Woodstock offers a wonderful pension in terms of being a part of the state system, but if you don’t make it to be vested in that pension, it doesn’t matter how great the pension is.”
Captain Dawn Neal-Ellsworth, who has been in EMS for 26 years, said there was no shortage of applicants when she started. “There was a large pool of medics to pick from, and you didn’t see them jumping from agency to agency as much because they were all within the same pay grade,” she said. “But this isn’t a Woodstock thing, and it’s not a Saugerties thing. This is a countrywide EMS shortage.”
In 2022, there were 1400 calls in the townwide fire district. Of those, the vast majority, 982, were for EMS services.
EMTs and drivers are needed. Contact the Woodstock Rescue Squad at 845-679-5111
While better living quarters will be a welcome improvement for paid Woodstock paramedics, improvements are needed for the rescue-squad volunteers who make do with a building never designed to be occupied around the clock. “It was basically a community-oriented building,” said Ted Weidenbacher, president of Woodstock Fire District Company 5, the rescue squad.
“People used to get vaccinations. We’ve had blood drives. That’s why the hallway is so wide,” he said.
The lounge where the duty crew sat on a recent evening is in a newer part of the building. “They would take the blood in the other room,” explained Weidenbacher, “and then people would sit in the kitchen and eat a cookie, then go out through the kitchen door.”
A community room, commonly used for meetings and blood drives, became crucial space during Covid for staff to spread out.
Beginning about a decade ago, the rescue squad added night-shift paramedics who weren’t there every night and didn’t provide daytime coverage, Weidenbacher said. “Then New York State changed their ways of operation and said if you want to be an ALS [Advanced Life Support] agency, you need to offer 24-hour coverage. That’s when we got the paramedics in here. For a long time, we had volunteer medics and paid medics as well as the volunteer EMTs.”
A BLS (Basic Life Support) crew consists of a driver and an EMT. The ALS provider is a paramedic, said Spinelli.
“Most of our calls in the district are BLS, so the duty crew will respond, which the hope is that it’s a full crew, which would be a driver, an EMT and a paramedic,” she explained. “If it doesn’t require the advanced skills of the paramedic, then it’s sent in with the driver and the EMT, and the paramedic comes back here and is back on for the next call.”
Over the years, Woodstock’s rescue squad has evolved to the point where even some of the volunteers, like Spinelli, opt to sleep in the building during their shift.
“And now it’s changing more because our needs are more, and there’s a need for multiple bunk rooms, not just a bunk room for the paramedic, but a bunk room for the driver and the EMT,” Spinelli said. “And if they’re not the same sex, they can’t really share a bunk room. So there needs to be three, and right now, we only have two.”
Many of the paramedics come from out of town. That is increasingly true for the volunteers requiring the need for a place to stay.
A struggle to find people
“When I joined 20 years ago, I lived in the Town of Woodstock,” said Neal-Ellsworth. “Now I live in Kingston, but I still come, and I still volunteer my time for Woodstock …. Many of our volunteers now don’t live in what I would call the heart of Woodstock. Many are on the outskirts of the district — Woodstock-West Saugerties Road, Cold Brook Road. So a lot of our volunteers are not really what they would consider close by with their extended response times. So they wanted a comfortable place where they can come to be able to sit and respond to calls and not have to feel like they’re ‘Oh, my god, I need to get there to get in the ambulance to get to wherever the call is.”
The four fire companies assist the rescue squad with manpower and traffic control, Spinelli said.
Company 1 includes the headquarters and is located near the center of town. Company 2 is in Wittenberg, Company 3 in Lake Hill, Company 4 in Zena. The rescue squad, Company 5, is located near Company 1.
Ametek Rotron houses an ambulance on its campus off Route 375 and allows employees to respond to calls, providing much-needed help for daytime coverage.
“I don’t know that the general public understands how busy Woodstock Fire District has gotten, and that by and large, we are all-volunteer with the exception of four paid people. And volunteerism is a struggle,” Spinelli said. “It’s a struggle to find people, let alone people to give free of their time.
“It isn’t so much about the bedroom that they sleep in, because nobody’s here on a holiday. We’re not going to give it a five-star review, like you would on Expedia because you had all the amenities and it was a great vacation stay. People are here to work. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be comfortable and safe. It needs to be all those things. But we are in a secure building. You can’t get in without an access code, and we are working actively to make improvements.”
In the beginning, there were no sleeping quarters, Neal-Ellsworth said. “They started because Ted and I got caught in a snowstorm. It seemed like every Friday night we had a major snowstorm,” she said.
What is now the lounge was a gym, and where the bunk room currently is was the closet for medical equipment, Weidenbacher said. The rescue squad has invested in technology to make the EMTs’ jobs easier, such as a CPR machine, which is better and safer than trying to perform CPR in a moving ambulance.