Dr. Cataldo Corrado is known as the “father of EMS” in Fayette County for founding the first local ambulance services. Decades later, at age 82, he is still fighting for the ambulance services in hopes of keeping them afloat.
“I’m very afraid of what’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Our patients will have to take an Uber to the hospital, and that’s not a good way to go if you’re having a heart attack.”
As the chairman of the Fayette County Emergency Medical Services Council, he plans to meet with county commissioners in November to ask for a tax to keep ambulance services running. He founded the council when ambulance services were in their infancy.
Corrado recently retired following 63 years as an emergency physician at Uniontown Hospital. In the late ‘60s, patients were taken to hospitals by paddy wagons, but with an increase in vehicle accidents, too many people were dying on the way to the hospital. The need for pre-hospital medical care became apparent, and Pittsburgh hospitals called on southwestern Pennsylvania hospitals to form ambulance services.
When Corrado started EMS in Fayette County, there were 36 ambulance services. Now, there are four. He noted communities like Fairchance, York Run and Georges Township had their own ambulance service.
“They used to be all over the place,” he said. “If something happens to one or two of these ambulance services now, I don’t know what our patients will do.”
He noted that in the emergency room, he provided care in a controlled environment. EMTs and paramedics respond to calls in environments that are uncontrolled. Some are assaulted by patients, such as a Fayette EMS EMT who was seriously injured Sept. 19 at Speedway in North Union Township. Yet, it is a low-paying job combined with danger and high stress, he said.
Corrado acknowledged no one likes the idea of a tax increase, but feels it is necessary to continue providing patients with emergency care. He said those interested in an EMS career have to pay for their own tests and training. A paramedic course requires a full day of training every Saturday for 16 months, plus out-of-pocket expenses.
Paramedic, firefighter and EMS instructor Ron Barry grew up to the sounds of ambulances wailing passed his Brownsville home and watching “Emergency!,” a 1970s show about a firefighter paramedic service.
He decided he would become a firefighter and paramedic like his childhood heroes on the show. But in the years since, he has seen first responders feel the strain of an industry with increased calls and requirements but little funding.
He started as an ambulance attendant with Hiller in 1989. At the time, most EMS services were volunteer. Now, Hiller and Point Marion are the only volunteer ambulance services remaining. Larger ambulance services have taken up the burden of emergency calls as many close due to a lack of funding and a difficulty in attracting employees for a job with low pay and huge training requirements. He works as a paramedic with Brownsville Ambulance Service and volunteers as the fire chief for South Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department, one of a handful of local fire departments which provide emergency medical care when an ambulance crew isn’t immediately available.
“Back when I was little, the ambulance in Brownsville was run by the police department. The only thing they could do then, really, was get you quickly to the hospital,” he said.
The level of care provided on an ambulance has increased, but so has the threshold for becoming an EMT, advanced EMT or paramedic. Pennsylvania requires students to pass a 70 to 100-question National Registry Certification test. The questions are multiple choice, and testers are instructed to choose the “best answer.” The tests are designed to be confusing, and many students easily pass the skills test but become hung up on the multiple choice test. They have to pay $80 per test, and students often become frustrated, give up and choose another career path. Previously, the online test was optional, reserved for students who wanted to be nationally certified. Since 2014, it is a requirement.
“In doing so, they decimated our ranks,” he said. “There’s no evidence since they implemented the National Registry Certification that clinical care has improved in any way, shape or form. As a matter of fact, they might have gone the other way, because there aren’t enough crews to respond.”
The decrease in crews has resulted in longer wait times for an ambulance.
“People take it for granted that when they call 911, an ambulance is going to show up, and it might get to the point that there isn’t one,” he said.
At the same time, calls have increased substantially. Many of the calls are not for true emergencies, but ambulances are required to respond.
“People call 911 for earaches and toothaches. Meanwhile, someone else is having a heart attack,” he said. “That’s a big problem, too, is abuse of the system and that’s burning some people out. You give me legitimate calls, I’m happy to help all day long. But the abuse of the system burns you out.”
Some patients never pay their bills, and Medicare and Medicaid subsidies are lacking, he said.
Corrado said commissioners understand the plight, but he is unsure whether they will implement a tax. Counties tend to pass the burden to municipalities, which often cannot absorb increased costs.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a real crisis mode, and people just don’t know,” he said.