The Department of Health and Community Services said Wednesday that graduating paramedics will be able to write a new national exam in May, which means they won't have to wait months to apply for permanent jobs.

Ambulance operators in Newfoundland and Labrador say the province needs another 250 to 300 paramedics, and expressed concern Tuesday the exam schedule was out of sync with graduation dates.

Wade Smith, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Private Ambulance Operators Association, said nine students from Keyin College who graduated in November are still waiting to write the exam.

Another 24 students who will graduate from a College of the North Atlantic program in April feared they would have to wait until August to take the test.

"And we're short almost 300 paramedics, EMS [emergency medical services] people in the province right now," Smith said Tuesday.

wade smith

Wade Smith is a paramedic in Whitbourne, and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Private Ambulance Operators Association. (CBC)

The exam is administered by the Canadian Organization of Paramedic Regulators (COPR), and is designed to standardize accreditation for paramedics so they can work anywhere in Canada.

"2015-16 is the first year the province has used the national exam and is an adjustment year," wrote the Department of Health in a statement to CBC.

"Students graduating in April will now have the opportunity to write COPR's national certification exam in May, rather than August. Students who still wish to wait until August to write the exam may do so as well."

Fear of losing graduates

"It seems once we got the media involved they came up with a solution pretty quickly," said Smith, who owns and operates an ambulance service in Whitbourne.

Smith had spoken to CBC's Here & Now Tuesday, saying he was worried graduating students may instead try to get jobs out of province if they had a long wait for their exam.

"Our biggest concern is that we can't put people to work here and we're in so desperate need of paramedics in this province, especially in rural Newfoundland," he said.

"If they're going to wait after spending thousands and thousands of dollars, we're afraid that they're going to end up going to look for work on the mainland or work with industry."

Ambulance Newfoundland

Eastern Health and the provincial Department of Health and Community Services are working to reduce the wait time for paramedic exams. (CBC)

Smith said about 800 emergency responders now work for private companies, regional health authorities or community-based ambulance services.

He said it's more difficult for rural companies to recruit. His company has been looking for a paramedic for nine months. He knows of another rural service that's been recruiting for a year.

Smith said fast-tracking the paperwork to allow new graduates to write the exam as early as possible is a good thing, but won't solve the bigger problem.

The Department of Health said it is working to increase "the percentage of paramedics within the existing ambulance workforce over the long term." 

There are now 790 emergency responders now employed.

"It is important to note that these 790 ambulance attendants provide a reliable service to meet the existing emergency response demand in the province," said the department in a statement to CBC.