BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It’s National EMS Week, a time designed to recognize and celebrate the EMTs and paramedics who we call for help in our communities every day.

But the last few years, answering those calls has been the hardest yet.

“The unsung heroes to me [in the medical world] are the EMS personnel,” said Dr. Elwin Crawford, state EMS medical director.

These essential workers are in critical condition, desperately in need of more recruits. Local EMS agencies say they’re still catching up from the major shortage that started in the pandemic — caused by things, such as burnout, premature retirements and lack of recruitment.

Currently, NorthStar EMS of Alabama reports they’re 25% understaffed, an improvement from being 50% understaffed just six months ago.

“During the pandemic, we lost about two years of recruiting and training EMTs and paramedics … People just did not want to come in, wear a mask, and ride on an ambulance and pick up Covid patients,” Edgar Calloway, operations director for NorthStar EMS of Alabama, said.

Crawford confirmed other EMS groups are experiencing the same issue around the country.

“Lots of EMS personnel just got out of EMS during Covid and never came back,” Crawford said.

The prolonged shortage may cause longer wait times for non-emergencies.

Now, a new bill may help down the line. Last week, Alabama lawmakers made legislation to drop degree requirements for community paramedics, a specialized type of upper-level paramedic program.

“Community paramedics go out and see patients who have medical conditions and try to be sure they take their medicines, so they don’t get sick, call 911, and end up in an emergency room,” Calloway said.

In the meantime, they’re getting creative to combat the shortage, offering streamlined training and scholarships, as well as meeting potential applicants in person.

“We’re trying to catch kids coming out of high school and show them what they do … This is a good entryway into the healthcare profession,” Calloway said.