Burnout among Detroit first responders leading to dangerous EMS shortage

Austin Tederington's heart is in Detroit. His family has worked for the city for over 100 years. 

But it's the longevity that made his most recent decision to leave the city as a first responder even harder. As he says it, "mentally, I couldn't do it anymore."

"During my time I saw runs for chest pain or shortness of breath that would be holding for 20 or 30 minutes before an ambulance would become available," he said.

The ambulances aren't available because the manpower isn't. Tederington leaving the city's team of emergency medical services and other first responders may be exasperating the issue, but it's also the product of a growing problem of burnout within the department. 

He hung his hat after eight years. 

"We lose at least two people a month," said another paramedic, who asked that he not be identified. "Every year our run volume goes up and every year our manpower goes down."

According to one Facebook page dedicated to reporting EMS closings and brownouts within Detroit, there were 11 units that were down on April 9. On average, the department usually has at least four units down. During peak periods, sometimes its nine units that are down.

During those periods, it can be particularly dangerous for residents making 911 calls since they may not get a timely response. The danger then becomes if response times are hurting some of the most vulnerable.

In late 2022, Detroit combined the roles of its firefighters and EMS crews to respond to a larger swath of calls in an effort to meet demand. At the time, the city was short 200 firefighters and 100 EMS workers. 

Charles Sims, the executive fire commissioner says the goal is to have 25 ambulances a day. 

"We've fallen a little short of that, but I do want to keep in mind that we do have our fire engines and fire companies that are responding that are EMT as well as paramedic trained," Simms said.

The paramedic who requested he remained anonymous said "Back in the day, every single ambulance in the city of Detroit had a licensed paramedic on it. 

"Now, four or five units a night are paramedics. The rest are basics - might even have just two weeks of training," he said.

Less experience on the job is the price of the city attempting to fill in ever-glaring gaps over its workforce. 

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Part of problem is the strain of the position in Detroit, which is caught in a downward spiral of fewer workers doing more work, which is only adding to the stress. The other issue is the availability of better-paying and less stressful positions outside the city.

"It's hard for people to stay when you're getting overworked every day. When you look, and you go ‘well, just five miles away from here, I could be making almost twice as much and do half the work’," said Tederington.

The commissioner says it's not that simple. 

"When they say there's a higher level of pay outside of Detroit, they have to compare everything apples to apples," said Sims. "I know a lot of cities outside of Detroit - they work longer hours through the week. We have a 42-hour work week, some have a 56-hour work week"

The department does hope the 45 incoming ems workers will help alleviate some of the pressure when they start in the next two months. "They will be infused into the department which will increase how many ambulances we have on the street every single day," Simms said.

"This is the transition phase that we're going through and It's going to be some growing pains, but I do feel very confident that at the end of this, that everyone will be happy that they're working for the city of Detroit and the citizens will get a higher level of care," said Simms.

The Detroit Fire Department is looking to hire at least 70 people in July. All you need is a high school diploma, a GED, and a background check. 

Find available jobs at this link here.