LOWELL — Patients in Lowell and Greater Lowell needing an ambulance trip in coming weeks may see a member of the National Guard behind the wheel.
On Dec. 21, Gov. Charlie Baker announced up to 500 National Guard members would be deployed to 55 hospitals and 12 ambulance service providers in the state. Lowell’s Pridestar EMS was among the 12 to receive reinforcements.
Pridestar Senior Vice President for Marketing and Public Relations Chris Dick said four members of the Guard were already training and a fifth will arrive next week. Help from the Guard will help allocate the company’s EMTs more evenly.
“Typically, we have two EMTs in the ambulance. What this allows us to do is take those two EMTs and split them up into two separate trucks,” Dick said. “Now we have the National Guardsmen actually driving both ambulances. So now instead of only having one resource, we have two, and they’re only doing the nonemergency calls.”
National Guard members will drive patients who are being discharged from the hospital or taking people to and from doctor visits, including people in nursing homes. They will also be called upon for transports between Lowell General Hospital’s two campuses, where patients may be moved based on the care they require.
Dick said the five National Guard members will make a difference but said there are more than five positions the company would typically have filled.
When the company looks to staff its ambulances, the ones handling 911 calls take top priority. However, there is still priority with the nonemergency calls that the company hasn’t been able to provide service to.
As the pandemic has continued and cases again surge, Dick said the company’s employees are continuing to work hard, but the work can take its toll on people. EMTs, like other health care workers, are in direct contact with patients who may have COVID-19 and there is concern over bringing it home to family members.
“It’s a big burden. They’re working tons and tons of hours. So any help we can get to help relieve some of the burden on some of these open shifts is great, and we’re continually hiring,” Dick said.
The problem is complicated by a high turnover already, Dick said. Many people will work as an EMT, gain contact hours and then transition to careers in police and fire. Others will pursue careers as physician assistants, nurses or doctors.
To help fill open positions, Pridestar is offering both EMT and Emergency First Responder courses. An EFR would fulfill the duties of the National Guard, assisting with nonemergency calls.
Dick said an EFR job can help a person gain contact hours and experience work similar to an EMT, to see if it’s a profession they want to be in. It could even lead to an EMT role at the same company.
Despite the staffing challenges, Dick said Pridestar isn’t looking to hire employees away from other companies. He said Pridestar is not unique in its challenges.
“We’re trying to identify those people early on. So we’re going into the high schools, we’re going into the vocational schools. We’re talking to them about our industry,” Dick said.
Dick said Pridestar has contracts for emergency response in Lowell, Chelmsford Dracut, Dunstable, Groveland, Haverhill and West Boxford. They also serve six communities in southern New Hampshire.