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Cetronia Ambulance Corps launches Pa.’s first EMT/paramedic apprenticeship program

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Cetronia Ambulance Corps headquarters in South Whitehall (Contributed photo)
Cetronia Ambulance Corps headquarters in South Whitehall (Contributed photo)

To address a shortage of emergency medical workers in the region, Pennsylvania’s first four-year emergency medical technician/paramedic apprenticeship program has been developed at Cetronia Ambulance Corps.

Now the program, launched earlier this year through the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board and Pennsylvania CareerLink Lehigh Valley, could be replicated in at least five other counties and across the state.

Nancy Dischinat, executive director of the workforce development board, said her organization created the program because of a new federal push to create apprenticeships to meet the demand for skilled workers that is going unmet. The Obama administration has allocated more than $315 million since 2015 for the development and implementation of apprenticeship programs.

“It’s a new tool in our arsenal,” Dischinat said.

Under registered apprenticeship programs, workers are trained at a company and given on-the job experience with the potential to gain employment with that company after successfully completing the program.

“The company is saying we are investing in you and we want you to invest in our company by staying with us,” she said.

“It’s an investment on both sides, really.”

The Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board, with the help of board member Larry Wiersch, CEO of Cetronia Ambulance Corps, focused on an apprenticeship program for EMTs and paramedics because there is a local and national shortage.

Launched earlier this year at Cetronia’s headquarters in South Whitehall Township, the program graduated two EMTs who plan to continue onto the paramedic program.

“Now that they are nationally certified EMTs, they will be mentored by experienced EMTs on an ambulance where they’ll get their feet wet,” Wiersch said. “They’ll get experience and guidance with experienced EMTs so they can do patient interface and understand what happens in a pre-hospital setting.”

The EMT and paramedics take classes through Lehigh Carbon Community College and the Emergency Medicine Institute at Lehigh Valley Hospital. EMTs enter the paramedic program after a year.

Apprentices work full-time and are paid while they are in the program: $12/hour for EMTS in training while on paratransit; $13/hour for EMTs on ambulances; and $21.05 for paramedics, Wiersch said.

EMT apprentices attend class in the evenings twice a week and one weekend a month while working side-by-side with EMTs and paramedics. Paramedics get more training and work on rotation with various hospital units, such as emergency rooms and operating rooms.

Wiersch called the training “pretty intensive.”

It is projected that there will 16 percent more EMTs and paramedics in Pennsylvania by 2025, with a percentage growth of 23.6 in the Lehigh Valley.

The average annual pay for EMTs and paramedics in the Lehigh Valley is $39,160, which is higher than U.S. and Pennsylvania wages for that occupation.

Wiersch said emergency medical services are suffering a shortage in part because people do not know how to enter the field.

“There is a lot of opportunity out there in many different areas, and, quite frankly, it’s not one of the careers schools typically focus on,” he said. Schools are more likely to steer students toward medical or nursing school “and they tend to forget the lower entry level positions.”

Initially, the apprenticeship program targets the long-term unemployed and older people, Wiersch said.

Cetronia has 111 EMTs and paramedics on staff and 13 volunteers for a fleet of 20 ambulances, 22 paratransit and two special operations vehicles.

Wiersch said apprentices will experience a variety of calls in a variety of settings at a busy ambulance company. Cetronia expects to respond to about 65,000 service calls this year, including about 25,000 ambulance runs, in South Whitehall, Upper Macungie, Whitehall, Weisenberg, Lowhill and western Salisbury townships and Coplay, Wiersch said.

The apprenticeship program has gotten the attention of the Eastern Pennsylvania Emergency Medical Services Council, which wants to expand it on a regional level throughout Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe, Carbon and Berks counties, and eventually the rest of the state, Wiersch said.

“We started out purposefully small to see what the pitfalls and hurdles were that we needed to overcome and then we went from there,” he said.

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