- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

The Fairfax County supervisor who oversees personnel said she didn’t know that the fire department is facing a crisis in staffing paramedics until she read about it yesterday in The Washington Times.

“This is quite a surprise to me,” said county supervisor Penelope A. Gross, Mason District Democrat and chairman of the personnel committee. “This is an issue that should have been brought before the Board of Supervisors. I’m very disappointed. … This can be a very serious issue for the safety of our residents.”

Mrs. Gross, who has headed the personnel committee for eight years, said she planned to ask Fire Chief Michael P. Neuhard for an explanation.

The Times reported yesterday that Fairfax County has lost at least 38 paramedics in the past three months — nearly 13 per month — and the fire department is approaching its daily staffing limits. Most of the former medics have retired or dropped their advanced life-support certification.

Comparatively, the department lost 58 paramedics from January 2000 to November 2003 — about 1.3 per month.

Fire department spokesman Dan Schmidt yesterday said paramedics are sometimes required to work 36-hour shifts, instead of their regular 24-hour shifts, to address staffing shortages.

Yesterday, Chief Neuhard told The Times that 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.

The chief is scheduled to meet tomorrow with paramedics’ union leaders to discuss short-term solutions.

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.

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

Mr. Schmidt, who said the department has about 350 medics, last week cited statistics showing that some paramedics were volunteering for extra work. But yesterday, he said those figures were an anomaly, adding that the department is forcing medics to work 36-hour stints.

Chief Neuhard said one of his short-term solutions might be to even out the disparities in staffing among the three shifts.

“We’re still providing the same level of service, but it’s becoming more difficult,” the chief said.

Chief Neuhard said the paramedics shortage is a complex problem that has developed in the past 10 years.

“We’re at a point now where growing pains are starting to affect us,” he said.

Fairfax County, with its more than 1.1 million residents, is the largest and most populous jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington.

Chief Neuhard blamed the current staffing crisis on an increased training burden, an aging work force, and a local and national shortage of paramedics.

“People think there’s one thing causing this and one solution. There’s not,” he said.

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.

“If you look at the upper management, the emphasis on our system has always been on the fire side. It’s that mind-set that we have that’s responsible for this neglect,” said Michael Mohler, president of the firefighters and medics union Local 2068.

Chief Neuhard yesterday said no such disparity in priority exists.

“We’ve always placed EMS as a pretty high priority,” he said.

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