Nurse tells Pa. city council of 30-minute wait for ambulance after relative’s

Sam Galski
Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.

HAZLETON, Pa. — A recent family medical emergency resulted in a wait that Hazleton residents Pat and Joe Scarcella say no one should have to endure.

As a registered nurse who worked in an emergency room, Pat Scarcella told city council at a recent public meeting that she’s no stranger to medical emergencies.

In mid-April, the Scarcellas called for an ambulance after a family member had fallen ill. Pat Scarcella said that she performed CPR while waiting for an ambulance crew.

Her relative passed away and Scarcella said that the outcome wouldn’t have changed if an ambulance arrived sooner — or at all.

“An ambulance would not have helped him,” she said. “I did do fruitless CPR for five minutes. It was fruitless because he was already passed. But the bottom line was, if he wasn’t, what do I do?”

After 20 minutes — and two calls to 911 — city firefighters were dispatched to assist, she said.

Ten more minutes passed until the Scarcellas learned that an ambulance crew from Columbia County was on its way.

The ambulance response was eventually canceled.

Pat Scarcella said she was thankful that city firefighters showed up, saying the department has several emergency medical technicians and paramedics on staff.

Before the incident, Pat Scarcella said that she hasn’t given much thought to ambulance service. She learned afterward that three ambulances serve the city.

That’s when she decided to come before council and ask local leaders to lobby for more ambulance coverage.

“If anyone in this room can honestly say they are OK with this, I would be appalled,” Pat Scarcella said. “Somebody’s got to lobby for this. I know it’s not in your realm to put an ambulance in the city, but if you see that person go down with a heart attack, a stroke, you’re calling 911 and there’s nothing you’re going to do?”

Both Pat and Joe Scarcella asked officials to consider impacts that multiple warehouses and industrial projects that are planned for the area would have on ambulance services when thousands of new jobs come online over the next few years.

“If all of these plans of employment are to come to fruition in this city … the infrastructure of our city and surrounding communities will be directly affected — our roads, our schools, our hospital and our emergency services,” Joe Scarcella said. “Maybe all of the companies I mentioned with tax abatements can offer seed money to provide better EMS service or to initiate a paramedic unit.”

Had circumstances been different, Joe Scarcella said that he wonders how long someone could continue administering CPR until an ambulance crew from Columbia County gets to Hazleton.

“EMS from Columbia County was en route,” he said. “I repeat, Columbia County. I find that unacceptable since we are only four-tenths of a mile from Lehigh Valley Hospital ( Hazleton).”

Meeting planned

The story that the Scarcellas shared with city council marks the second time since 2019 that the governing body was approached with concerns about excessive waits for ambulance service.

At the time, Councilwoman Allison Barletta relayed concerns about response times and asked council members and the mayor to set up a meeting with Lehigh Valley Health Network. In 2018, Lehigh Valley purchased a local ambulance company called American Patient Transport Systems.

After hearing the most recent concerns, city Fire Chief Donald Leshko said he’s working to arrange a meeting with Lehigh Valley staff.

“Hopefully, this week or early next week we can get a date for the meeting to talk about concerns raised at the council meeting and go from there,” Leshko said Monday.

Lehigh Valley Health Network is not immune to challenges that the EMS community faces despite efforts to enhance ambulance services by focusing on employees to assist with recruitment and retention, Keith Micucci, administrator of emergency medical services at Lehigh Valley Health Network, said Monday in an email.

The network invested more than $700,000 in services that are provided to the city, he estimated.

“We have and continue to experience staffing challenges in both the EMT and Paramedic positions,” Micucci wrote. “Over the past 2 1/2 years, LVHN has been active in trying to attract and fill all our vacancies. Unfortunately, there is a supply and demand issue for these types of positions.”

Officials at Lehigh Valley hope to close the vacancy gap by offering scholarships for people who are interested in getting into pre-hospital care, he said.

“We are offering both EMT and paramedic scholarships in hopes of attracting young, talented professionals into the field,” Micucci said.

A national issue

Leshko said that he understands concerns raised by the public, but said EMS staffing shortages have been an issue across the country.

Volunteerism is down and ambulance companies that pay “decent working salaries” can’t get people to fill positions, he said.

“People are not fulfilling these jobs,” the chief said.

EMT training is extensive and costs between $600 and $800 per person, he said. Testing has also become more rigorous, he said.

“I took the state test, passed and became and EMT,” he said. “It’s my understanding you (now) need to pass a national registry test that is very difficult.”

A volunteer component that was key to supporting the system years ago is not as strong today, with people focusing more on work and school, or are in situations where both parents work, have children who are home-schooled or need child care.

Staffing issues aren’t exclusive to Hazleton, as communities throughout the country are experiencing similar issues, he said.

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