By Carol Stiffler

The Portage Township EMS crew gets called out for help an average of 10-16 times a month. The small crew alternates use of a 2009 ambulance and a 2014 ambulance, both of which are aging but have been updated with important equipment, like heart monitors.

Located on the northwest side of Curtis, Portage EMS is seen as a vital asset to the aging community. Voters historically approve Emergency Services millages by large margins.

But the 3 mills currently paid by Portage Township residents bring in only $250,000 per year, which is not enough to pay an EMS crew competitive wages, and it’s hard to draw and keep medics and EMTs. At the moment, Portage EMS has three paramedics, four EMTs, and five drivers. That’s a critically low number, leaving no room for an EMT to call in sick.

This problem is happening around the country, said Portage Township Supervisor Don Reed, and isn’t unique to Portage Township. Several ambulance services in the area have recently closed or combined with others. That includes Pickford EMS, which closed in September 2022 and now contracts with Kinross EMS.

Reed called a special Portage Township Board meeting held Wednesday, January 18 to discuss the Portage EMS situation. Prior to the meeting, rumors and speculation led some to fear the Portage Township EMS may not exist two years from now. Twenty-five audience members, most of retirement age, came to listen and share their concerns.

In order to sufficiently staff Portage EMS and pay competitively–like $25 per hour for paramedics and $22 per hour for EMTs—Portage Township voters would have to approve a millage that might be as high as 6.5 mills.

“What do we do?” Reed asked. “There isn’t a simple solution.”

A paramedic does essentially the same job as a registered nurse, except in more dangerous conditions, said Brad K…., assistant Portage EMS manager.

That makes it easy for a paramedic to step out of an ambulance job and into a hospital position, a scenario that happens often because wages offered at hospitals are much higher.

“We need younger people,” said Ed Unger of Michigan’s Region 8 Healthcare Coalition. ”Many of us are in our 50s and 60s and have other ailments but do it for the passion of doing it.”

Unger attended last week’s special township board meeting and said he could offer an 18-month EMT training course to as few as six class members. The cost would be between $500-$600 per student, and Unger suggested there would need to be some sort of buy-in by the student to entice them to take and pass their licensing exam at the end of the course. If at least six students sign up, Unger believes he could have a course available within two months.

Township Clerk Pat McLachlan referred to a 2017 study done by SafeTech that predicted this scenario and suggested Portage Township should merge with other nearby ambulance services – like Garfield EMS and Newton EMS – to form one central ambulance authority.

For now, the Portage Township board is simply trying to educate residents about the issue and dismiss rumors that the Portage Township EMS may simply disappear. Reed said a path forward isn’t clear, but EMT positions will be advertised to help resolve the current staffing shortage.

Lakefield Township resident Steve English credits Portage Township EMS with saving his life after a heart attack in August 2018. While volunteering at a Curtis Library book sale, English began feeling unwell and sat down. As his condition worsened, other volunteers called 911, and a Portage Township ambulance was there within minutes.

English remembers getting loaded into the ambulance, but not much of the ride. His heart stopped and he was revived on his way to Helen Newberry Joy Hospital.

“I don’t remember the trip at all,” English said. “I was clear out. I don’t think I was breathing.”

When he woke, he was surrounded by Emergency Room personnel.

“I was happy to see them,” he said.

English is sure his story would have been much different if he’d been out in the country, or if he had to wait for an ambulance coming from another township.

“It was very good to have [the EMS] right there,” he said.

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