by Phillip Manning ~ January 22nd, 2014
On Tuesday night, the audience participation portion of the Mat-Su Borough Assembly meeting was dominated by discussion of the Borough’s Department of Emergency Services. First responders and other Borough residents spoke about serious concerns regarding current staffing levels.
The staffing concerns for the Borough’s emergency services stem from a 29.9 hour per week cap on non-full time employees. That cap is a result of a combination of factors. According to a statement by Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss, the chief reasons are the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and existing union contracts. Another issue that has come up in discussions of the cuts is the state’s finding in 2012 that the Borough must provide contributions to the state employee retirement program for employees who work thirty or more hours. The Borough is currently being sued in connection with that finding.
According to one EMT who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, many stations are actually reducing hours beyond the required 29.9 to 24 hours per week. That includes personnel who work both as EMTs and firefighters.
Another EMT, Andrea Ritchie, who says she has over 40,000 hours of medical experience, says she has had her station and shift changed. She tells what happened recently when she was sent to an unfamiliar station to fill in.
“The first call was an unfamiliar location. We were told to use the GPS. The Medic-1 assisted us with the GPS. He punched in the location and told us, ‘Just follow it.’ We did. We ended up at a previous call’s location, twenty minutes away from where we were supposed to be. So, we had a twenty minute delay, then we were able to get to our patiend.
Andrea Ritchie went on to say that the patient’s condition was such that the extra twenty minutes was not life-threatening. She says that the changed circumstances have caused her to make a tough decision.
“Today, I did something I’ve only done previously twice in the last thirteen years…I called and scratched my shift–not for a day for being a little late or being ill, but permanently. I cannot function under this system. I won’t be the first, I won’t be the last to go. This is a crisis in the making.”
Andi Hoest later summarized what she sees as a nation-wide problem with attitudes regarding EMTs.
“…[The] Manager, Mayor, Assembly Members, community members, think that it’s ok to put us in our own class, where we don’t have benefits, we don’t have any representation, and we aren’t considered real employees or full-time workers. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, now, and all I can come up with is that we love our jobs. Because we love our jobs, we can be taken advantage of.”
Later in the meeting, Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss as well as multiple members of the Assembly thanked emergency services employees for their service to the Borough and for speaking at the meeting. Deputy Mayor Ronald Arvin told those present that the Assembly is taking the matter seriously, and that a review of the department is underway. After hearing first responders use words like “crisis,” Assembly Member Jim Sykes expressed concern for the state of the department.
“I just hope, from the testimony that we’ve heard, that we don’t have an emergency in our emergency services before we get it dealt with, legal issues notwithstanding.”
In addition to resident and Assembly comments on the issue of staffing, Borough Attorney Nicholas Spiropoulos requested an executive session at the next regular Assembly meeting to discuss the lawsuit that has been filed. That meeting is scheduled for February 4th. Complete audio of Tuesday’s meeting can be found at radiofreepalmer.org.