Channel 2 Investigates

Georgia facing dangerous shortage of EMTs, paramedics

Lee Burks worked in fire and emergency medical services for 21 years, often working two jobs to support his family of four.

"My daughters played travel softball. We would get the bill information for how much a pitcher's mitt was going to cost or how much a new ball bat was going to cost, and I would relay that to how many hours I'd have to work extra on the ambulance."

Burks told Channel 2 Actions News he loves helping make a bad day a little better. But he missed many holidays, birthdays and softball games to make ends meet.

"We realized we really couldn't pay our bills, so I'd have to work more and more hours," Burks said.

"I always wondered what they were going to think because I wasn't there," he said. "I always wondered, 'Was I being a good influence, was I being a good father?'  "

A few years ago, he took his talents from the ambulance to the movie set.

Burks now works as a paramedic for the film industry.

"I don't feel like I have to worry about financially what we're going to do or how we're going to come up with the money," he said.

According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for emergency medical technicians and paramedics in metro Atlanta is $36,740.

That's less than what medical secretaries ($36,980), opticians ($37,990), and welders ($38,890) make, according to the same data.

Many hospitals have started hiring paramedics to work in emergency rooms, offering higher pay than counties can offer.


"[Paramedics'] scope of practice is such that [hospitals] can get tremendous benefit from having them in the ER," said Clayton County Fire Chief Landry Markson. "We can't compete with that private sector money."

According to Merkison, losing employees to industries that can pay more is just one of the struggles local fire departments face.

"The thing about paramedic certification, it's an incredibly challenging curriculum," he said.

Many metro Atlanta counties, including Clayton, have raised the bar for required training. Recruits must earn either Advanced-EMT or paramedic certifications.

While that extra training allows workers to provide patients with a higher level of care, it can cost them thousands of dollars and take up to 18 months to complete.

"It becomes overwhelming and daunting to a lot of folks that have other time commitments," Merkison said. "When you look at their family life and their family responsibilities, the addition of now paramedic school just becomes a situation that's not winnable or workable."

Once they're trained, EMS workers have to consider the emotional toll.

"What is this doing to our nation's first responders, the amount of tragedy they see?" asked Merkison.

"People are starting to ask themselves, 'Am I cut out to deal with that?'"

All those factors contribute to more unfilled positions across Georgia.

"Those shortages are only becoming worse and worse," said Kimberly Littleton, the executive director of the GA EMS Association (GEMSA).

According to Littleton, the entire state is suffering from shortages, but the situation is more severe in rural areas.

She says that can lead to delayed response times when people need help quickly.

"They expect to call 911 and get the provider they are needing," she said. "When you don't have that to offer to the citizens of an area, you're failing your citizens."

Littleton works with departments and committees across the state to try to attract more providers into emergency medical services.

She told Channel 2 Action News that a state committee is looking at creating an online option for part of the required basic EMT training. She also said that GEMSA is working to set up an EMS pension fund.

In Clayton County, Chief Merkison says his department works hard to keep their employees happy and healthy.

"The Board [of Commissioners] constantly looks for ways to up their salaries," he said. "Eighty-seven percent of our budget is personnel services."

Clayton County Fire & Emergency Services also recently implemented an education incentive plan.  An employee's base salary goes up by 3.5 percent if they earn an associate's degree, or 6.25 percent if they receive a bachelor's degree.

As for Lee Burks, he misses responding to calls.

"The camaraderie that you get with people when you go into a situation that's unknown, and you know they have your back and you have theirs, the ability to go in there and take somebody that's having a bad day and make it better -- there's nothing better," he said. "I miss it all the time."

But Burks enjoys the extra time he gets to spend with his daughters and granddaughter.

"It's nice to say, if she wants something, we'll get it. If she needs something, we'll definitely get it, but I don't have to worry about it now," he said.

"You've never looked at a bill for diapers and wondered how many hours on set that is?" asked Channel 2 Action News.

"No, not now. That's a blessing," Burks replied.