400 National Guard members training to become EMTs

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of National Guard members in training. The information News10NBC was given was incorrect.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — For months, News10NBC has been reporting on the staffing crisis that our local hospitals and nursing homes are experiencing.

The problem is so severe, a few dozen members of the National Guard with medical training are currently deployed at Monroe Community Hospital just to keep beds open.

Across the Finger Lakes Region, hospital executives say there are more than 1,600 nursing home beds unavailable because of staffing shortages and that is backing up the entire healthcare system. Strong Memorial Hospital, for example, currently has 80 patients waiting for nursing home placement. Until those patients can be moved, capacity in the hospital can’t be freed up for other, more acute patients who need it.

The pandemic, burnout, early retirements and the vaccine mandate on health care workers caused an already bad staffing shortage to worsen. Nurses, Certified Nursing Assistants and food service workers have been leaving in droves, particularly those who worked in nursing homes.

The National Guard tells News10NBC that every member eligible with medical training is being utilized at nursing homes across the state to help supplement staffing but 400 more are now in the pipeline.

On Tuesday, News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke visited the Air National Guard base at Hancock Field in Syracuse where a group of soldiers and airmen are currently undergoing EMT training.

Garrett Thurston, of Brockport, has been a heavy equipment operator in the National Guard for the past four years but recently, “I volunteered for the orders and they were like well, ‘Do you want to go to the EMT course?’ and I thought it was a great opportunity,” he told News10NBC.

He’s one of 600 members of the National Guard statewide without any medical training, taking a 160-hour training course. When complete, he’ll take the exam to become a certified EMT.

“They are just run-of-the-mill soldiers and airman who do their normal duties but have raised their hand and said, ‘Yea, I’ll tackle the EMT training course’ because that can make a difference,” said Col. Richard Goldenberg.

Once the training is complete and the soldiers and airmen are certified, it’s likely they’ll be deployed to short-staffed nursing homes, like Monroe Community Hospital to serve.

“A close friend of mine works in a nursing home,” Thurston said, “she’s been telling me some crazy stories, crazy hours she’s been working and I’d be glad to help out and make sure that we can be the most effective to the people that need it.”

It may not exactly be what many of the soldiers and airmen thought they were signing up for but,

“In the last two years, the National Guard has done a variety of missions that we never thought possible but every time the state has come to us and said can you help with this… we found resources, the personnel with the right skills, to be there at the right time to help make a difference,” said Col. Goldenberg.

The state is also hoping the training may encourage some of the National Guard members to consider medical civilian jobs.

“That EMT certification goes right into their back pocket if they want to use that to change their career field,” Col. Goldenberg added.

There are currently 11 locations across the state offering EMT training to about 400 members of the National Guard. Those going through it are expected to have their EMT certification by the end of February.