Johnson County paramedics working longer than usual


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A black walkie-talkie crackles to life with the sound of a woman’s voice. An alarm echoes across the building. A few moments later, two men rush toward a door, and a siren sounds across the streets of Iowa City.

The life of a paramedic is “hectic, unstructured, and challenging.” For Iowa City paramedics, this does not deter them from staying in the career for more than 30 years.

“People will come to the university to finish their degree and want to expand their skills while they finish,” said Becky Loyd, field supervisor for the Johnson County Ambulance Service. “They come here, and they never stop coming back.”

Loyd has been a paramedic since 1976, when the field of paramedics first emerged. The 30-plus years she has worked for the department is becoming increasingly rare. An article in Tampa Bay Online stated that more paramedics are moving on to becoming nurses.

Some officials are saying this is due to the more controlled environment in a hospital.

“It’s just different; it’s not more or less [stressful],” said Dieter Friton, a paramedic at the Johnson County Ambulance Service. “[Nurses] have the luxury of a somewhat controlled environment; nothing is controlled here. You see horrors. Anything you see on TV [regarding paramedics], it’s life.”

The Journal of Emergency Services’ Annual Salary and Workplace Survey reports that in 2012, 39 percent of 221 agencies had paramedic shortages in the workplace. And while this may be the case in other places, Johnson County is going against that trend.

The Johnson County Ambulance Service said of the 55 paramedics on staff, roughly 10 to 15 people have been with the service for more than 15 years. A few people, such as Loyd, have been involved for more than 30 years.

On average, nurses have a higher salaries than paramedics.

Casey Thompson, director of Emergency Medical Services at Keokuk County, said that is one of the major pulls that is causing the service to lose members in other areas.

“Depending on the paramedic department, we can work 72 to 96 hours a week,” Thompson said. “Nurses work an average of 36 hours a week. We work twice as many hours and get paid just as much.”

There is a lack of paramedics in rural areas, which forces the current staff to work more hours.

As of now, the paramedic program offered through the UI is nine months for a student to be certified as a paramedic. Loyd said that as a result, the Ambulance Service has a high rate of students both working for the department and attending school concurrently. In some cases, the students stay with it after graduating the program.

In addition to the close ties with the university, officials also say it is the Iowa City community overall that helps keep the paramedics’ job enjoyable.

“Everyone wants to be a firefighter or a cop; no one grows up wanting to be a paramedic,” said Bob Libby, a Johnson County Ambulance Service supervisor. “But here, the people you help tell you thank you. We have an advantage that we get to build a relationship with patients.”

Thompson said although Keokuk County is a special situation because of its rural atmosphere, he has seen a trend as well for paramedics switching to a nursing career.

“I would say it’s more popular for [paramedics] to become nurses than physicians,” he said. “You have better pay, better hours, and everything they learn applies to nursing and is industry-related.”
Despite the national and state trend, the paramedics of Johnson County do not plan to change their careers any time soon.

“I enjoy doing this,” said Libby, who has worked as a paramedic for 17 years. “I got talked into doing this as a first responder, but it gets into your blood, and I do this for a living, and I do this for 24 hours a day now.”

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