- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Response times for Fairfax County paramedics fell slightly during the past three months of last year as many medics were retiring or dropping their advanced life-support certification.

According to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, advanced life-support (ALS) personnel arrived at medical emergencies within six minutes of being dispatched 75.7 percent of the time from October through December.

Paramedics arrived within six minutes 76.98 percent of the time in fiscal 2003, which ran from July 1, 2002, to June 30.

Despite the drop, Fairfax’s response times remain among the region’s best. For example, D.C. paramedics responded to emergency calls within eight minutes 70.8 percent of the time in fiscal 2003, according to the city’s Web site (www.dc.gov/mayor/scorecards/fems.shtm).

The National Fire Protection Association, which recommends standards for fire and emergency medical agencies, calls for an ALS response time of eight minutes from dispatch to scene 90 percent of the time.

The Washington Times reported Monday that Fairfax County lost 38 paramedics in the past three months, compared with 58 medics in the previous three years. The remaining paramedics are regularly being pressed into serving an additional 12 hours after their usual 24-hour shifts.

Fire department spokesman Dan Schmidt said the department’s level of service remains high, but the decrease in response times shows the strain of working with fewer medics.

“The paramedics are going to do everything they can to serve the citizens of Fairfax County, but it does continue to get more difficult to fill those vacant slots,” Mr. Schmidt said. “That’s what it comes down to. The paramedics continue to step up to the plate and respond in the way we’ve always responded, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do that.”

Michael Mohler, president of firefighters and medics union Local 2068, agreed with Mr. Schmidt.

“We’re still staffing units and as hard as it is, we’re still getting out on time,” he said, “[but] if this is ignored, I don’t think you can expect paramedics to continue to do their job effectively.

“If a solution is not arrived at, you cannot expect paramedics to be superhuman,” the union leader said.

Mr. Mohler said he did not think the drop in response times is directly attributable to the loss of paramedics.

Mr. Schmidt said the department’s goal is to dispatch paramedics with a defibrillator to a patient in cardiac arrest within six minutes “100 percent of the time. It’s very, very difficult to do that.”

Daily staffing levels for Fairfax’s three, 24-hour paramedic shifts are approaching their limits. Each shift requires 86 paramedics. The first shift has 88 medics, the second has 95 and the third 98.

All of the roughly 1,200 firefighters of Fairfax County are trained as emergency medical technicians. Paramedics, who receive higher pay than firefighters, can perform more-advanced procedures, such as starting intravenous drips and administering drugs.

Fire Chief Michael P. Neuhard is scheduled to meet today with union leaders to discuss short-term solutions. He said he plans to recommend short-term solutions to the paramedic staffing problem within a few weeks.

In addition, two separate committees are devising long-term recommendations, which will be delivered in the next few months, Chief Neuhard said.

Chief Neuhard has blamed the current staffing crisis on an increased training burden, an aging work force, and a local and national shortage of paramedics. But union leaders and paramedics have said the shortage could have been avoided if fire officials devoted more attention to emergency medical services (EMS) instead of fire suppression.

According to the fire department’s Web site (www.co.fairfax.va.us/fire/general/overview.htm), firefighters responded to 21,740 fires in the past fiscal year, and EMS personnel responded to 60,306 medical emergencies.

Chief Neuhard said Monday that the fire department has not neglected paramedics, but Mr. Mohler disagreed yesterday.

“The fact that [Chief Neuhard is] dealing with it is a good thing, and he’s to be commended for it, but I stick by my comment. We’re talking about years and years of neglect,” Mr. Mohler said.

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