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EMS should shorten shifts, auditor says

Monday, August 15, 2005 by

The City Auditor's Office has recommended changing the way personnel are scheduled within the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services department.

Auditor Stephen Morgan, in a report to the Council Audit and Finance Committee, urges the department to switch from a system of 24-hours on-duty followed by 48-hours off for paramedics to a more flexible system, allowing paramedics to work shorter shifts. Such a move, he said, would lessen fatigue and burnout among paramedics while also reducing the amount of overtime the department pays each year.

While the department does not plan to adopt a uniform 8-hour or 12-hour schedule, EMS Director Richard Herrington said next year's budget proposal does include a plan to offer those shorter shifts on a flexible basis at some of the busiest EMS stations.

"We are proposing hiring 24 additional paramedics to allow us the flexibility to all at once move from a 24-48 schedule to a combination schedule…anything divisible into 24," Herrington said, adding that paramedics would be offered the option of working 8-hour, 12-hour, or 24-hour shifts. "But they would work no more than 48 hours per week."

The current schedule results in an average workweek of 56 hours, with significant variations week-to-week. Herrington said in making the change to reduce overtime, the department will also have to boost the basic wage to ensure paramedics do not face a cut in their annual take-home pay.

"The earnings that they get will be the same. We would not be able to recruit with any reduction," he said. The average paramedic in Austin earns about $53,000 per year. Herrington said that cutting regularly-scheduled overtime from more than 800 hours to just over 400 hours per year without adjusting the base hourly wage rate would mean a loss of about $17,000 to the average employee.

That type of cut, Herrington said, is simply unthinkable. "I can't recruit at that. That's just the market. In fact, the critical care and health care market for paramedics has never been as tight as it is right now. We're hiring a lot of people from out of state right now. We have to be very aggressive in our recruiting efforts." In a memo accompanying the audit, Herrington also noted that starting pay for EMS paramedics is higher in Williamson County than in Travis.

By taking steps to ensure paramedics don't suffer financially under the new system, Herrington said the department would be able to concentrate on reducing stress and fatigue for drivers assigned to stations with the highest call volumes.

"We've got probably half a dozen stations right now where we consider the workload excessive," he said, noting that some central-city and downtown crews could respond to 30 calls within a 24-hour period. "We truly have to get these paramedics off of a 24-48 schedule. It allows us to mix our stations’ schedules with what fits the employees’ lifestyles the best, but also what fits the demographics of the station," he said, adding that some less-busy stations would remain on the 24-hour shift schedule. "Some of our stations are very slow, in the county, especially in the winter, and we have other stations that are extremely busy all year long."

The report from the Auditor's office pointed to other possible benefits of shorter shifts for paramedics, citing the stress and 'burnout' from those high-volume shifts as one reason paramedics leave the profession. The auditors noted that the switch would likely come with some additional costs, including hiring and training new personnel.

But the auditors recommended that the department go ahead with the change, citing a desire by city management to better manage overtime costs. EMS had the highest overtime budget of any city department in 2005, with scheduled overtime totaling over $3.3 million.

County details cost of Howard Lane

Landowners disagree with county's estimate

Travis County would like for a public-private partnership formed to fund the extension of Howard Lane to State Highway 130 to be a bit more private – in terms of funding – while private landowners insist the county has overestimated the cost of the project.

While invited, none of the landowners were present at Commissioners Court when Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, presented an overview of the Howard Lane project at last week’s meeting. The project, a candidate for funds in the upcoming bond issue, would extend Howard Lane to stretch from the city limits east to SH 130, making it one of the major arterials to cross the toll road just east of the Austin city limits.

The state had done its part to make the toll road as accessible as possible to cross traffic, Gieselman said. His presentation outlined a $2.5 million gap between the estimates of local homeowners and the county. And while Gieselman agreed the county and landowners had started out in the same place – getting Howard Lane done faster than the proposed 10-to-15-year timeline in the CAMPO long-range plan – the two sides have ended up with far different pictures of what the project should be.

“Where things fell apart was when we started talking about Howard Lane and how that got built,” Gieselman admitted to the court. “Initially, they would dedicate the right-of-way, and they would have the county build the roadway. We said, Well, we don’t do that, and if we did, it was going to be a proportionate share.”

The county is not in the business of building new roads in new locations simply to help out a developer, Gieselman said. In the case of Howard Lane, however, it benefited a larger public good to try to get the project done. The difference between the two sides is that the county adds in water quality, sidewalks/bike capacity and inflation adjustments for a $7.8 million price tag. The landowners’ estimate on the project was $5.3 million.

Travis County could have chosen to punch Gregg Lane through instead of Howard. It would have been cheaper, and the county could have avoided the additional cost of the bridge, but commissioners agreed Howard was much more akin to a major arterial like Parmer Lane than Gregg Lane.

At least one of the landowners argued that he should not bear the full cost because his piece of property was not directly connected to a highway. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner scoffed at that, saying many landowners dealing with the city would jump at the chance to have the kind of proportionate deals the county was offering. In an effort to level the playing field even more, the county has offered to pick up the full cost of a $2.7 million bridge over Gilleland Creek.

County commissioners considered a number of legal questions on the Howard Lane project during executive session, and are slated to consider the final proposal from the citizens’ bond advisory committee on Tuesday.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Down to the wire . . . Contract negotiations between the city and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters are scheduled to continue on Wednesday of this week. The two sides are still negotiating on the contract, but an October 1 deadline looms over the talks. That leaves just a couple of weeks to finish, according to union officials, who say they need a month after the end of negotiations to have union members ratify or reject any agreement . . . . Job opening . . . The city is advertising to hire a second Executive Assistant for Council Member Jennifer Kim. The ad, posted by the city on July 26, says the job entails monitoring city and departmental issues and projects; preparing, editing and summarizing reports, memos and correspondence; acting as liaison between City Executive and departments; assigning, monitoring or preparing responses to management or Council requests for information; reviewing agenda items; attending Council meetings and work sessions; coordinating appointments, etc. Currently, Kim has one executive assistant, Amy Everhart. Whoever is hired for the position will be working with her, dividing the various tasks. Applicants need to have five years experience and at least a bachelor’s degree in public administration and/or economics. An MPA with extensive coursework in economics is desirable. The aide will be responsible for economic development and housing. Applicants technically work for the City Clerk’s Office. Kim’s administrative assistant, Andrew Rivera, will be joining the Public Information Office on September 1 . . . Election security earns award . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has announced that her office was recognized at a national conference recently for security procedures implemented to protect the ballot in an electronic voting environment. Travis County was recognized after a peer review of procedures from 27 election entities from across the country. Travis County's "best practices" were selected from eight finalists representing five states. . . . Meetings . . . The Urban Transportation Commission meets at 6pm in the 8th floor conference room at One Texas Center. . . The Resource Management Commission meets at Noon in room 104 at Waller Creek Center. . . The Police Monitor Citizen Review Panel will hold a special meeting at 6pm at the East Community Branch YMCA, 5315 Ed Bluestein. The panel will be hearing public input on two internal affairs cases and community policing policies. . . . Cap Metro negotiations continue . . . Capital Metro's independent contractor, StarTran, and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, representing bus operators and mechanics, resume negotiations today on a new contract. StarTran and the union have agreed for a second time to extend the current contract. It now is set to expire this Friday, August 19. Both parties have agreed to a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in today’s negotiations to help facilitate agreement on a final contract. . . . Getting it right. . . In a story in the August 11 In Fact Daily incorrectly described the Community Land Trust Steering Committee. It is not appointed by the Austin City Council. It is an ad hoc group under the leadership of The Austin Community Development Corporation. And in the August 12 edition, we ran an incomplete quote from Kirk Holland, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District that may have been misleading. The correct quote is: …Longhorn found "a considerable amount of debris in certain parts of the line that interfered with their ability to obtain good, processable data on deformation and corrosion (in the pipeline).”

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