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Squad hails achievements, but warns of trouble

South Boston News
Debbie Osborne presented Kenneth Cope with the Philip Hicks award for his years of service and dedication to the squad. / May 22, 2019

The emergency medical services profession is experiencing a staff shortage. That was the message that Debbie Osborne, executive director of the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad, shared with squad members and guests Sunday night at the squad’s annual banquet in Clarksville.

Despite a critical need for paramedics and EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians), Osborne said overall the year was a success. She credited the squad’s accomplishments in large part to the work and dedication of its volunteers and full-time personnel. She also recognized several volunteers for their longevity serving the citizens of Mecklenburg County, including Kenneth Cope (43 years’ service) Helen Compton (17 years) and Dawn Currin and Bruce Inscore (13 years each).

Sadly though, Osborne said, “Volunteers are a dying breed.” She added that it is not only the emergency medical services profession that is suffering, and it is not just a local issue. Fire and police departments across the Commonwealth and the U.S. are facing the same manpower shortage.

She expressed concern that the generation coming up does not feel the same call to service that their parents and grandparents felt.

“I used to think it was because of low pay, but I’ve changed my thinking. I now believe it’s not about the money alone.” Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue pays 100 percent of the insurance costs for full-time recruits and there are other tangible benefits.

Paid benefits, especially for those under age 35, and even pay increases don’t appear to be enough to keep people in the profession. Those who do volunteer as well as those who assume a paying position with an emergency medical services squad or fire or law enforcement too often leave the profession in five years or less, according to Osborne.

Earlier this year, local fire chiefs voiced similar concerns during their annual dinner meeting with the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors.

For organization like the MCLRS to survive, Osborne said it has to focus on recruitment and retention.

EMTs and paramedics, as well as police and fire, deal with a lot of situations that are not safe or that are emotionally challenging. Osborne worries that pressure on paramedics and EMTs to hide their pain or grief is driving people away from the profession. “There is a high rate of suicide among emergency medical personnel. We need to check that and accept that it’s okay to not be okay.”

The job is not only mentally and emotionally taxing, but also physically taxing. The wear and tear on the medic’s body forces some from the profession, as does the stress from responding to the high volume of calls they handle in any given shift.

Osborne did not offer any resolutions to this perplexing problem. Other localities facing the same issue have significantly increased pay for fulltime EMTs, or offered tuition assistance so medics, whether paid or volunteer, can pursue their paramedic certification. Squads in other communities spend time in the schools, recruiting students as young as high school, hoping to instill a passion for the profession at a young age.

For the Mecklenburg County Lifesaving and Rescue Squad, the manpower shortage is the number one issue they will tackle in the coming year as they plan for a future with fewer volunteers and more paid staff.

Already, in 2018, the organization implemented an organizational change to “better prepare for the future.” The squad moved away from a volunteer-led group to more traditional business model with Osborne as executive director and a board of directors, Alex Greene as chair, along with Ray Long, Bruce Inscore and Justin Eubanks. On Sunday two new operating positions were filled. Dawn Currin was named chief operating officer and Josh Whitten became the health and safety officer responsible for the physical and mental well being of both paid staff and volunteers.

The evening was not all about problems in the industry. They also celebrated their successes.

Cope received the Philip Hicks Volunteer of the Year Award for his 43 years of service to the squad. Osborne announced that she had submitted Cope’s name for inclusion as a Life Member in the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads. She expects he will be notified of his acceptance by the state board in July. “It is a high honor and he will be the only person from [Mecklenburg County] to receive this honor.”

Several squad members received challenge coins — a medal given to squad members for exceptional service. Recipients included Josh Whitten, Dawn Currin, Debbie Osborne, Helen Compton, Les Powell, Scott Cifers, Joelle Cramer, Cindy Owen, Austin Owen, Logan Owen, Alex Greene and Paul MacCarty.

A video of showing highlights of the year brought several chuckles and a tear or two as guests listened to the background song, “Sirens,” an anthem for first responders and their families written by Christian musician Joe Banau and his wife Rachel.

The evening ended with members lighting a candle for each former member of the Mecklenburg Rescue Squad was read aloud. As the members of the squad prepared to leave for home, Currin left them with a final message: “Be kind, help someone, and put others first. You never known the struggles that someone is going through. You just might change a stranger’s life.”

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