- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department faces a severe shortage of medics that is wrecking its overtime budget and slowing its response times.
The shortage of emergency medical services personnel has driven staffing levels below half of what is needed to staff the city's fleet of ambulances, according to a report prepared this month by the EMS department.
On any given day, the EMS department has enough personnel to staff 15 of the 34 to 36 ambulances it has in service, the report states. The remaining units are staffed by overtime personnel or firefighters, or they are placed out of service.
The Washington Times first reported in April that, under former Chief Ronnie Few, the EMS department had changed the response-time standard from when a 911 call is received to when a dispatcher alerts an emergency crew. The change came as a result of worsening ambulance-response times.
The EMS department is budgeted for 392 full-time jobs for field providers, supervisors and support staff.
According to the report, which was presented to fire officials this month, the city operates 36 ambulances, of which 22 provide around-the-clock service and 12 provide service in 12-hour shifts during peak hours. Two additional paramedic units work a 40-hour, Monday-through-Friday schedule.
That system requires 335 field providers, but the department's authorized strength for field providers is 277 enough to staff 24 ambulances.
Of the 277 medic positions, 46 are vacant. Another 57 medics are not staffing ambulances because they are detailed to paramedic engine companies, are assigned to the training academy or are off duty with injuries.
That brings the number of field providers to 174, enough to staff just 15 full-time ambulances. "It's astonishing," said EMS Capt. Gregory Blalock, who wrote the report.
Capt. Blalock said a medic shortage has existed in the city for several years, adding that the District "hasn't had a real onslaught of people applying."
Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the city's medics, said the fire department should have been more aggressive about hiring medics much earlier.
He produced a 1999 memo sent to then-Chief Donald Edwards that raised concerns about an impending EMS staffing crisis.
"What's criminal is they knew this was coming and they did nothing to stop it," Mr. Lyons said. "This agency has no commitment to EMS and definitely no commitment to the members of my local."
He said the biggest reason the city faces a severe medic shortage is its lack of retirement benefits. He said medics are "looking at security, especially since September 11."
"If I die on the job, what will I get? If I complete my tour of duty, what will I leave with?" he said.
D.C. firefighters hired after 1987 are eligible to receive 67 percent of their salary as a pension at retirement. Medics receive from the city an annual contribution of 4 percent of their base salary to a "defined contribution" retirement account like a 401(k) that they can use for investments.
Newly installed EMS Chief Steve Reid, who took over the job this month after the resignation of Few-appointee Marcus R. Anderson, said improving retirement benefits, pay and working conditions are vital to recruiting more medics.
"We've got personnel issues we've got to address," he said. "We've got to provide an environment in which people want to come to work."
Chief Reid said he has initiated a "top-to-bottom" assessment of the EMS department to determine whether it is properly using its employees. The assessment could lead to a shake-up that sends desk workers back to jobs in the field.
He said the department's budget is taking a hit from overtime costs to man otherwise-unstaffed ambulances, but the long hours are taking their toll on providers.
Most medics say they work an average of 30-plus overtime hours every two weeks. Some work as many as 90 hours of overtime.
"They're becoming zombies," Chief Reid said. "I don't want my people burned out."
Recruiting new paramedics has become even more important because in October the D.C. Department of Health will adopt the expanded training requirements of the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Standard Curriculum, the federal guideline for emergency medical care.
Instead of a 5-month certificate program, the paramedic-training course will expand to a two-year associate's degree program. The increase in requirements is likely to set off a bidding war for paramedics.

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