SC county officials: 24% pay raise hasn't kept all EMS stations open

Aiken County officials concluded they must "pay what the market demands" in order to recruit and retain enough staff to keep all 10 stations running

Dede Biles
Aiken Standard, S.C.

AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. — Aiken County Council has authorized County Administrator Clay Killian and his staff to "pay what the market demands" to fill vacancies on the emergency medical services department's staff, council chairman Gary Bunker told the Aiken Standard recently.

Even though salaries for such EMS employees have been increased by 24% since the summer of 2019, there continues to be a problem in finding workers to fill those positions.

Aiken County officials have concluded they must
Aiken County officials have concluded they must "pay what the market demands" for EMS personnel after failing to recruit and retain enough members to staff all 10 EMS stations, despite a previous 24% raise. (Aiken County Department of Emergency Services)

Retention of employees also has remained difficult.

"We are in a bit of an emergency situation right now, and we need to pay what the market pays," said Bunker, who is Aiken County Council's chairman. "We are not going to be bureaucratically tied to getting the people we need to work for Aiken County."

During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the EMS department had a budget of $6,582,821, but expenditures totaled only $5,619,019. And costs have remained under budgeted amounts during the current fiscal year.

"If they're 'underrunning' because they don't fill positions and we need to increase pay, then so be it," Bunker said. "We've got the money to do it. I don't want it to just sit there. It doesn't do any good."

In mid-August, Aiken County Council unanimously approved a resolution that included a plan to help resolve some of the struggling EMS department's issues. A week prior, there were 18 vacancies.

During a work session before County Council's Oct. 20 meeting, there were 19 unfilled positions, according to a report presented by Killian.

Closed EMS stations

Aiken County has been forced to close some EMS stations because there aren't enough employees to keep them all up and running.

"We average six or seven or eight stations that are open a day out of 10," said Killian during an interview after the meeting.

"Sometimes we drop to five, but that's because somebody calls in sick or has a child care issue or some other family issue. We've got seven (EMS employees) out on medical leave right now because they have been injured."

While Killian praised County Council for being "generous" in providing across-the-board EMS raises of 24%, he said the county still faced a challenge afterward. "We were so far behind because the market has moved so rapidly," Killian explained. "We still weren't competitive in certain areas."

Now that Aiken County Council has loosened purse strings further, Killian plans to focus on trying to hire paramedics and emergency medical technicians with advanced training.

Sixteen students are enrolled in a basic EMT course that the county has teamed up with the South Carolina Fire Academy to conduct, he said.

Classes began last week.

Killian said his primary short-term goal is to get all 10 stations fully staffed and open on a regular basis but added that it wouldn't be easy to fill all of the 77 budgeted positions and keep them filled.

More than $7,000 already has been spent by the county for advertising and outreach efforts, but that hasn't generated many applications.

"We're in a tough market," Killian said. "We've got a large medical community in the CSRA, so there is a lot of competition for the skills that paramedics and EMTs have. There are several services — private and public — that we all compete with. It's Economics 101, when the demand is high and the supply is low, the price goes up."

Killian added that he also has to make sure that existing employees "are paid appropriately" in comparison to new hires.

'A serious problem'

Aiken County Council member Phil Napier called the EMS department's state of affairs "unacceptable" during the work session preceding County Council's Oct. 20 meeting.

He represents District 6, which includes Graniteville.

"My thing is that I just want the service provided to the taxpayers in Aiken County (to be available) in every corner of the county," he said later when asked to comment further. "Both stations in my district are closed, so why shouldn't I be upset? Someone who lives in Monetta (or Graniteville) is just as important as someone who lives in Aiken or North Augusta."

Napier believes the county needs to be using private ambulance services more than it is now — even after expanding that network — to fill the EMS gaps.

He also thinks there are other important issues besides pay that the county needs to seriously consider.

"I really believe the problem (mainly) is that young people aren't going into that profession anymore," Napier said. "I think that some of the problem (in the EMS department) is management. I've been told that by some of the people who have left."

Aiken County Council Vice Chairman Andrew Siders also expressed concern during an interview following County Council's Oct. 20 meeting.

He represents District 7, which includes parts of Aiken.

"We have to look long and hard at every aspect (of the EMS situation)," he said. "One of the most important things we can do as a county is to provide EMS to the people. If the problem still exists after a certain amount of time, then we are not doing enough.

"A lot of people say it's a pay issue, but some people say it's a management issue," he continued, "so I want to give management a chance to fix this. I don't know what a good timetable would be, but it can't be too long because this is such a serious problem. It's so important that it has to be fixed. We have no choice but to get this right."

Chris DeLoach is in charge of the EMS department in Aiken County.

Asked by the Aiken Standard to respond to Siders and Napier's comments about a possible management issue, Killian replied in an email sent Monday.

"We are constantly looking at ways to improve our entire organization, not just one department, but believe we have the tools and resources needed now to better address the staffing shortages we see happening in EMS organizations throughout the state and country," Killian wrote. "It is our No. 1 priority at the moment."


(c)2020 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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