- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Fairfax County has lost at least 38 paramedics in the past three months, and the fire department is approaching the limits of its daily staffing requirements.

Most of the paramedics have retired or dropped their advanced life-support certification amid newly increased national requirements for paramedic education and ongoing certification. Fire department sources say many more paramedics are eligible for full or partial retirement.

Meanwhile, the county’s remaining paramedics say they are being asked to work 36-hour shifts. But fire officials say those paramedics are volunteering for extra work.

“It’s a critical situation,” says Michael Mohler, president of the firefighters and medics union Local 2068.

Mr. Mohler and other union representatives will meet with Michael P. Neuhard, chief of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, on Wednesday to discuss short-term solutions to the problem.

Department spokesman Dan Schmidt says the county has 350 medics, including a recruit class of six and about 40 officers who do not work in the field.

Mr. Schmidt says the department has lost 38 medics in the past three months: 21 who dropped their advanced life-support certification, eight who retired, seven who resigned and two who were terminated. Comparatively, the department lost 58 paramedics from January 2000 to November 2003.

All the roughly 1,400 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.

Mr. Mohler says the medics are forgoing the increased pay to avoid being overworked. Paramedics are regularly being asked to work 36-hour shifts, or longer, though their contract prohibits working more than 36 hours in one shift, the union leader says.

“We do not have enough paramedics in the field to staff our equipment, [and] they are extending our workday, often forcing us to work 36 hours straight without relief,” said a county paramedic who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Schmidt says paramedics are not being asked to work 36-hours shifts, citing statistics showing that several medics have worked extended shifts voluntarily. He acknowledged that “our paramedics are a busy lot. They don’t get a lot of rest.”

The county fire department runs three 24-hour shifts, which require 86 paramedics each shift. The first shift has 88 medics, the second has 95 and the third 98.

Mr. Mohler says paramedics’ concerns have been ignored for a decade because the department is focused on fire suppression, even though medics respond to more calls than do firefighters.

According to the 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 emergency medical services 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,” Mr. Mohler said.

He said Chief Neuhard inherited the paramedic problem, “but he inherited it after serving as a deputy chief. He was around. It’s not like he came from the outside.”

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