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Council devises short-term fix for EMS staffing

Friday, February 5, 2016 by Jack Craver

The union representing Austin emergency medical service workers won a partial victory last week when City Council voted to approve three new positions for the EMS call center. Three entry-level employees will be added to the center, and the department has agreed to try to fill three positions reserved for more experienced employees that it had previously asked to eliminate.

Staffing still falls short of what Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County EMS Association, believes is necessary, but from his perspective, Council’s solution was still a dramatic improvement over a proposal floated by EMS management in December.

Because the communications center had several vacant senior “Medic 2” positions, the department had asked Council to reclassify those positions, opening them up to entry-level “Medic 1” employees. As Assistant Chief Jasper Brown explained at the time, there simply weren’t any employees with the experience necessary to be promoted into the more senior designation, and the call center was in desperate need of additional manpower.

Those in the Medic 1 position can only take calls, while those in the Medic 2 position can also dispatch.

Although the current contract for EMS employees requires three years of experience before a worker can be promoted to the Medic 2 level, in recent years the department has asked for waivers to reduce the minimum experience to one year. But even with that waiver, Brown said, there will not be any communications employees eligible for the higher rank until at least October.

Marquardt had called the proposal short-sighted, saying that it neglected the underlying problems the department faces in retaining veteran staff. Eliminating opportunities to earn promotions and higher pay would only exacerbate the trend, he argued.

After Council punted on the issue in December, asking labor and management to try to come to an agreement the next month, the two sides reiterated their arguments at a Public Safety Committee hearing on Jan. 25, eliciting responses from the panel’s members that corresponded with familiar ideological divisions. Council Member Leslie Pool was sympathetic to the union’s case, while conservative Council Member Don Zimmerman suggested the Medic 2 positions weren’t necessary if lower-level employees could shoulder the burden.

But the next day at Council, it was Pool’s view that prevailed, with no apparent opposition from either the union or management. A substitute ordinance approved three new Medic 1 positions for the communications center. The positions will be funded by the money available from the vacant Medic 2 positions. By the time there are employees qualified to fill the higher-level positions, the EMS department will have come back to Council with a request for additional funding through the budget.

Pool’s ordinance passed easily, with only Zimmerman and Council Member Ellen Troxclair voting against it.

“I agreed with staff that if the work could be done at the Medic 1 level, that it was commendable to remove the higher-cost positions,” said Zimmerman before the vote.

Marquardt told the Austin Monitor that he had been encouraged in talks with Brown about the possibility of allowing EMS employees to make “lateral transfers” between field operations and communications without losing their pay grade. Marquardt had previously stated that allowing such moves would help resolve the staffing shortages in communications.

“We have a new chief of staff, and I think that person has shown that we can work together and reason through issues,” he said of Brown.

That, Marquardt added, is in stark contrast to Brown’s predecessor, the recently retired James Shamard, who Marquardt said had consistently opposed talks of lateral transfers.

Reached for comment, Shamard said that communications and field roles were fundamentally different. High-level employees are responsible for overseeing and training their subordinates.

“You couldn’t show up and start teaching people to do something you hadn’t done before,” he said.

Brown told the Monitor that while the current contract does not allow lateral transfers (someone who switches position from Medic 2 is demoted to Medic 1), he agreed to discuss potential changes for the future.

Photo by Adreanna Moya made available through a Creative Commons license.

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