Monday, February 10, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin EMS union outlines effects of high call volume and sick leave policies

In recent months, Austin Emergency Medical Services has implemented new policies to improve the lives of its medics. The department has adjusted its start times to be on a more natural wake-up schedule and has instated a new code for medics to call in the event of an assault, resulting in faster response times from police.

Even with these changes, Austin-Travis County EMS Association President Selena Xie told the Public Safety Commission at its Feb. 3 meeting that there are several areas where the department can adjust its policies to further improve the well-being of its employees. She pointed specifically to call volumes and sick leave policies.

According to Xie, EMS is using 70 percent of its available trucks at any given time. And while EMS is hitting its response times in 90 percent of the cases, Xie said response times are increasing.

Especially in the downtown area, meeting response times can require coverage from ambulances from other districts. “What that means is those (other) areas are not getting the coverage they need,” Xie explained.

Running calls in other areas, she said, contributes to a reduced amount of downtime for medics and leads to burnout. Extra coverage also necessitates the use of station commanders as backup medics. To alleviate this stress on medics, Xie requested that Austin EMS consider adding more ambulances to areas with high call volume.

Commissioner Preston Tyree said that in addition to burnout, “If you’re using equipment inefficiently (then) our costs per call has got to be going up.”

Although the department did not present financials associated with EMS personnel covering supplemental districts, Assistant Chief Jasper Brown did outline the cost of adding additional trucks to the ambulance fleet. He said each additional ambulance and associated staffing costs $1.5 million in the first year, and $1 million of this cost is recurring for personnel.

Despite that initial startup cost, Assistant Chief Brown said EMS is studying unit response and travel time to determine where the department is not compliant and is working to improve times in these zones with new stations or trucks. In the downtown area, he said space constraints limit how many units can be housed within the district.

In addition to requesting more ambulances, Xie said, “We’re hoping that the department can clarify what is required in a sick note.” She cited several cases of valid sick notes not being accepted by commanding officers, and said in some cases procuring a sick note can put an undue financial burden on a family.

“It also seems patronizing in some way to prove that you have a stomach bug,” Commissioner Rebecca Webber notes.

Chair Meghan Hollis asked if there was data indicating that stringent sick note regulations contributed to more medics coming to work sick, which she called a “public health issue.” Anecdotally, Xie said she had heard of such cases.

To encourage the EMS department to address the issues brought up by the union, the commission unanimously passed a recommendation asking the city manager and the department to continue to work with the Austin-Travis County EMS Association to solve these problems.

Photo by Andreanna Moya Photography made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin/Travis County EMS: The Emergency Medical Service for Austin and Travis County. Co-managed by the City of Austin and Travis county.

Public Safety Commission: The Public Safety Commission is a City Council advisory body charged with oversight of budgetary and policy matters concerning public safety These include matters related to the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department, and the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department."

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