- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

D.C. fire department officials acknowledged yesterday a severe shortage of emergency medical technicians to staff ambulances, but denied that any workers are being forced to work overtime without pay.
"If people don't want to work overtime, that's their choice. But if they do want to work overtime under the current program, they will be paid straight time," said Emergency Services Management Chief Stephen Reid.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams said he is concerned about the staffing shortage, first reported in Friday's editions of The Washington Times.
"We want to get the ambulances out there and the services out there and if we have to do overtime to do that, then we're going to do that," the mayor told The Times during a campaign appearance at a seniors' center yesterday.
Chief Reid said an internal document called Bulletin 11 "spells out how people will work overtime."
Each firefighting battalion maintains a list of eligible workers who want to work overtime, and gives firefighters on that list the option to work in an EMS unit when the need arises, Chief Reid said.
The Times yesterday reported that the shortage forces the fire department to assign firefighters to EMT duty and pull in overtime firefighters to staff the fire stations, who do not get paid time-and-a-half for working overtime.
EMT workers receive time-and-a-half for overtime, but firefighters must work 212 hours over a 28-day period before they receive overtime pay, said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association Local 36.
An internal fire and EMS department report distributed earlier this month said 335 persons are needed to staff the 36 ambulances the city operates on a daily basis, but that the EMS department budget allocates only 277 field-provider positions.
The report said 57 medics are detailed elsewhere or out on leave and 46 positions are vacant, leaving 174 personnel only enough to staff 15 ambulances full-time.
Lt. Sneed said the long-term solution to the shortage solution is "an aggressive hiring program," which would focus on firefighters trained in EMT duties, with a process called "dual-role cross-training."
"You will have firefighters that can serve as paramedics. And you take your EMS workers that you have now, and merge them into the firefighter system, which would give them better pay and better benefits," said Lt. Sneed.
"It would give you a better department that's better managed, with better training, and ultimately a better service to the community," he said.
That, however, will take a while.
The EMS department is understaffed because skilled workers are leaving.
"People come and get their training and experience and boom, they're out of here, because of the pay disparity, the retirement disparity, the lack of promotional opportunities and because we're short-staffed" said Chief Reid.
"They're getting burned out. We need to make sure people are alert, so they don't cause an accident when they're out there on the units."
The mayor agreed.
"Obviously our goal, like other jurisdictions around the country, is to get our people recruited and retained as quickly as possible, no question," said Mr. Williams.
Chief Reid's EMS office is currently in the midst of a study, "to check our staffing," he said.
"I can't go to personnel and say I need 65 people," said Chief Reid. "I need to know what spots need to be filled, how many EMTs, how many office assistants."
"It's not going to get cleaned up overnight," he said of the problem. "It's going to take a while to get all these things straightened out."
Until the city hires more EMS workers, the department will continue to staff roughly 20 of its 36 ambulances with overtime workers.
"Where there's a vacancy, we'll start out trying to fill the position with EMS personnel. And if we can't accomplish that, we'll drop down to the firefighters," Chief Reid said.
The Rev. Willie F. Wilson, who like Mr. Williams is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for mayor as a write-in candidate, said the staffing problems in the department are further evidence of bumbling by the Williams administration.
"It's another indication of poor management by the mayor," the candidate said during an afternoon campaign stop at a Northwest grocery store.

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