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Amid an EMT shortage, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay offers incentives to new recruits

Three man in neon yellow vests load a man on a stretcher who is covered by a blanket. They are outside a vehicle.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
The first cohort of apprentices in the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Ultimate Medical Academy's EMT apprenticeship program demonstrated their skills during a mock exercise in November.

The Crisis Center teamed up with Ultimate Medical Academy to launch an EMT apprenticeship program that offers students free tuition and paid jobs. They aim to remove barriers to getting certified.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, along with much of the nation, is dealing with a shortage of emergency medical technicians. The organization recently launched an apprenticeship program that offers incentives to new recruits.

As part of the program, students attend EMT certification courses taught by Ultimate Medical Academy. While in school, the Crisis Center hires them in their medical transportation division TransCare. They work as behavioral health attendants driving vans for law enforcement when they respond to mental health crises and also drive ambulances alongside TransCare’s medical workers.

Many EMT students need to work while in school in order to afford it, said Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center. This apprenticeship not only allows them to earn money while completing the program, it also gives them hands on experience in the medical field and flexible schedules to accommodate their training.

Free tuition is also available through federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding along with grant money from health care nonprofits.

The need is dire, said Reynolds. TransCare typically operates with a staff of about 100, she said, but currently has a vacancy rate of more than 20%. EMTs often go on to work as firefighters, paramedics and other health professionals, so a shortage could have ripple effects.

Three men in neon yellow vests load another man who is covered by a blanket on a stretcher into an ambulance simulator inside an EMT training academy.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
While in school, apprentices work for TransCare, the medical transport division of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. The educational facility run by Ultimate Medical Academy includes an ambulance simulator designed to match the models TransCare uses.

“If we don't as a community start producing more of these entry-level workers in the medical field, we're going to be in huge trouble,” said Reynolds.

The strain is being felt nationally. A report from the American Ambulance Association found about one-third of EMTs quit their jobs in 2021, and turnover continued to rise last year.

Low wages were commonly cited as a factor, especially when new EMTs have to factor in paying off their training and finding employment.

Apprentices in the Crisis Center program who pass their EMT certification exam get promoted and must work there for at least a year. Reynolds admits she wishes the pay could be higher – it starts at $15.00 an hour with incremental increases over the year. But the program does offer education assistance for participants to continue training for higher-paying roles.

“What we hope is that this is a starting block for them to an amazing career in the medical system, and many of them could never see themselves being able to do that because of the financial barriers, educational barriers, all those things,” said Reynolds. “So it’s a triple win. It’s a win for them, a win for the Crisis Center and most importantly it’s a win for the community.”

The assistance has been a huge help to students like Natasha Santos Montalvo, 18. When she graduated from high school, she said she didn’t have a clear career path. The incentives persuaded her to give EMT training a shot, and now she said she’s committed to work on advancing to fire rescue.

“I like helping people and I didn't come to that conclusion until recently, so this very much opened up a lot of doors for me,” said Santos Montalvo.

A group of men and women wearing neon vests surround a man who is lying on the ground. Vehicles are in the background to simulate a crash. One woman puts an oxygen mask over the man on the ground's face.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Natasha Santos Montalvo (center) demonstrates delivering oxygen to a "patient" during a mock exercise at her EMT training academy. In this scenario, the patient crashed his bike into traffic while intoxicated.

Santos Montalvo was in the first cohort of 20 students who participated in the program last fall. They recently demonstrated their skills at Ultimate Medical Academy’s training space in Tampa. Outside in the parking lot students responded to mock critical incidents, working as a team to help patients in a variety of emergency situations, including car accidents and drug overdoses.

They also transported patients into an ambulance simulator inside the building designed to model TransCare’s vehicles so that while they are in school they are getting comfortable with the layout they will go on to work with as EMTs.

Funds from the Florida Department of Education’s Pathways to Career Opportunities Grant as well as CareerSource Tampa Bay and Health Career Advancement Program also support this initiative, said Rebecca Sarlo, UMA’s associate vice president.

“We are in a situation in our nation where we have to draw more people into health care and we have to give them pathways,” she said. “…And so normalizing the idea of starting with these types of programs as a viable, valid, exciting way to enter a field and drawing more young people into these opportunities so we can feed our health care systems is incredibly important.

"It’s going to take all of us playing together, all of us coordinating from educational entities, government, community agencies, employers, etc. So that each of us who live in these communities can rest assured that the quality of care is there.”

Classes start for the next group of apprentices later this month. Sarlo said the goal is to eventually train 100 EMTs a year.

You can learn more about the program and how to apply here.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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