D.C. Paramedic Shortage Causes Concern

Workers Leaving for Better Pay, Benefits

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005; Page B03

The District is facing a shortage of paramedics that could hamper response times and patient care, especially if the number of vacancies keeps growing, according to a D.C. Council member and people on the force.

Last week, five paramedics resigned to take jobs at other area agencies, which offer better pay and benefits, fire department and union officials said. The recent staffing problems have forced supervisors to make paramedics work overtime on a regular basis, the officials said.

D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson, shown at a 2003 news conference, says the city is taking steps to retain and recruit paramedics. (Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

The departures pushed the number of vacancies to 57 out of 166 positions for paramedics. As many as 30 more emergency medical workers, including paramedics and less-trained technicians, could leave by July, according to a draft report prepared by the council's Judiciary Committee.

"We have to ensure we have adequate medical attention on these calls," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the committee. "I do have a sense that the public is now safe, but that doesn't mean there isn't a problem lurking."

Adrian H. Thompson, chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said he is concerned about the shortage, adding that the city is taking steps to retain and recruit paramedics.

Salaries for D.C. paramedics range from about $40,000 to $54,000. Fire officials and paramedics said they believe that medical workers were leaving mostly because they could get far better retirement benefits elsewhere. D.C. officials are planning to study ways to boost retirement benefits for paramedics, officials said.

Thompson and other top fire officials said the staffing shortage is not as dire as it appears because response times are improving and the department is evolving in the way it approaches emergencies. The department handles about 110,000 medical calls a year.

Besides full-time paramedics, the city has 33 paramedics who double as firefighters. Most of them ride fire engines or firetrucks, which also respond to emergency calls, officials said. Ten more dual-trained rescue workers are scheduled to hit the streets in the next month, they said.

Fourteen paramedics have transferred to become paramedic/firefighters since 2003, fire officials said. They said they have a total of 161 employees trained as paramedics, a number that has been fairly consistent in recent years.

The department's long-term goal is to turn all paramedics into firefighters, giving officials greater flexibility in responding to calls and emergencies. But many paramedics said that forcing them to take on firefighting duties is not a solution because the jobs are very different.

They said the changeover, in the works for years, has been taking so long that the department has been forced to alter the way it deploys ambulances on medical calls.

On 12 of 14 advanced life-support ambulances, the department now teams a paramedic with a less-trained emergency medical technician. In the past, the ambulances were staffed by two paramedics.

Paramedics say such deployment can hurt care because the EMTs cannot perform as many medical procedures, reducing help at an emergency scene.

"They are watering down the service by splitting paramedics," said Gary Hankins, a union consultant who represents a newly formed group of paramedic supervisors who are concerned about the direction of the department.

Union officials said the problems will grow worse if the departures continue.

"We don't have the personnel that is going to make this system function effectively," said Kenneth Lyons, president of Local 3721 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the medical workers.

Fire officials said that response times have improved in the last year. Last summer, the department responded to critical emergencies within eight minutes 65 percent of the time. The department last month met that goal 77 percent of the time, officials said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company