WMFD struggling to keep paramedics

Commission discussing ways to cut turnover within department

By John Rech news@theeveningtimes.com

Fire Commission and Budget Committee chairman Tracy Catt gave West Memphis Fire Chief Wayne Gately a research assignment at the February Fire Commission meeting revolving around the “three R’s.” But it wasn’t exactly reading, writing and arithmetic, although a lot of that will be involved. Instead, Catt asked the WMFD to attack retention rates and improve recruitment by any means including restructuring the budget and revising policies, procedures, and payroll. Attrition continues among EMTs in West Memphis, even after a city-wide pay raise of 3 percent that kicked in Jan. 1. A paramedic earns approximately $47,500 per year according to the new bi-weekly pay chart. With one more giving notice, the department will be running with seven paramedics starting next week. In January, Catt told Fire Department leaders to conduct exit interviews with firefighters and EMTs that had recently left the department. He wanted to know exactly why other fire departments in the Mid-South looked like greener pastures. There are nine slots for firefighter/EMT on the WMFD organization chart. “Under former Chief Spears there were 12 paramedics, four per shift,” said Gately. “Two were cut under Chief Spears. Then one more cut later. That is all well and good until one month last year we lost three paramedics and we’ve never recovered.” EMS Chief Chris Brogdon said he interviewed a paramedic that recently left to work at suburban department elsewhere in the Mid-South. The reasons given for leaving were wage- and work condition-related. His paramedic duties in his new job did not include firefighting, with fewer runs and more pay. The department will run short-handed for at least a month with the next physical agility test scheduled by the department on March 5. The department does not currently do this testing in the summer to avoid heat related complications. Gately defended the fairness and necessity of a standardized agility test, even with pre-certified firefighter applicants and described the agility requirements to commissioners. “(The test) is certain things that are exactly what we do on a fire scene,” said Gately. “If you can’t do it, you’ve got injuries. It protects the city from worker’s comp claims.” Catt urged the department to consider running the test more frequently to increase the pool of qualified applicants. “I can’t set it up during an open application period,” said Gately. “We used to get 40-80 applicants for one agility test. Now, we advertise on web sites, everywhere, from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31, and we got only 32 applicants.” There are two open periods per year covering almost four total months. In five years with Gately at the helm, 44 new hires came aboard. “We’ve never had that kind of turnover before,” said Gately. “It’s not just here, turnover and fewer applications is a nationwide trend.” The WMFD holds an ISO-1 rating (the highest rating given), affording residents and business the best rates for fire insurance. According to Gately, the ISO demands firefighter count based on city population and the EMT/firefighter fighter combo position is the only way he can staff to meet that requirement. “The EMT has to be a firefighter because of the ISO fire rating for the city,” said Gately’s. “If they are not a firefighter, we will lose our ISO Class 1 rating.” “You have to have a certain number of firefighters to respond to a structure fire,” added Assistant Chief Jeff Jones. “At some point in time, you may want to look to separate EMT and firefighter,” said Catt. ‘It will cost more to staff both, but it is something you may want to look at.” “Maintain your excellence in service, but set this off to the side — make it its own line item or department — you may want to consider it at some point in time,” said Catt. “From the standpoint of looking at options, you can’t take anything off the table. I don’t know what the commission is going to do or the council is going to do about the firefighter/paramedic issue. But if we don’t start looking at ways to address, it will become a problem.” “If you make them just paramedics your are greatly increasing costs,” said City Councilwoman Ramona Taylor. “Your currently sharing that cost with them as firefighters.” Councilwoman Helen Harris asked about the feasibility of increasing EMS revenue to offset any changes that may be proposed and asked if the fully-chargeable rates were already being billed. The discussion that followed considered the uninsured, those claiming false identity, and bill collection and write-off procedures. The first six weeks of 2016 the EMS collections amounted to $67,358. “Everything that can be charged, everything that can be done to collect, we are already doing,” said Catt. Overall department staffing is down compared to the past as well, with an 18-member staff per shift now. A crew of 20 worked each shift under former Chief Fred Morris, according to Gately. The chief looked to spread the work load as an improvement. Now we have 18, I am asking for three more to get us to 19 per shift,” said Gately. “It helps. Then I was going to ask for three again next year.” “Our job is to bring options to the city council,” said Catt. “Every department has to look at how it can restructure, how can it look outside the box. We need to have a look at all options. That is all I am asking. Our job is to take that to council so you can do your job. We may have to look at doing things different from we’ve done the last 30 years. That is the ultimate goal.”

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