Tenn. EMS station shuts down amidst staff shortage
Wilson County's budget committee voted to conduct a pay study to improve retention
The Lebanon Democrat, Tenn.
STATESVILLE, Tenn. — Employee shortages caused one Wilson County EMS station to temporarily close during the last week, and unless something is done to curtail the problem, it will inevitably happen again.
Wilson County Emergency Management Agency Director Joey Cooper said that WEMA is already short 18 positions and that three additional employees are leaving by next week, so what happened at Station 7 last weekend may become a recurring thing.
Cooper said that those employees are leaving to go work for other departments and that retention of employees has become more difficult as surrounding agencies offer more competitive wages and benefits.
Given the current circumstances, the county's budget committee voted at its meeting on Oct. 7 to recommend a pay study to see how Wilson County is stacking up against those competing counties around it. That measure will now go before the full county commission during its regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday at 7 p.m.
Wilson County Human Resources Director Qiana Scruggs said that the county commission would be presented with the pay study plan on Monday and that Steven Thompson of Burris, Thompson and Associates would be the person recommended for the commission's consideration.
If approved by a simple majority, the county will move forward with the pay study, with numbers returned by January so that it can be included in next year's budget. Cooper is concerned that may not be fast enough to address the problem and that more closures could occur when his staff at the agency is stretched thin.
For now, the agency is implementing a plan to address the employee shortages. Cooper said that Station 7, the station servicing the southeastern most portion of Wilson County, would be the station that will close first when employee shortfalls arise. He said that the decision was made based on call volume but that the agency also decided that Station 7's geographic region could be serviced by the stations in Watertown and Norene.
Cooper indicated that this wasn't ideal and that depending on where a call came from, response times could increase up to and in excess of 10 minutes.
WEMA has improvised these scenarios to maintain coverage of the county with its available resources. Other steps could include temporary shut down of equipment so that personnel could be moved within the county as needed.
Cooper said that if a paramedic isn't available, as a result of the employee shortages, then by policy, WEMA has to run a basic life support truck to the scene. These are operated by advanced emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
The first option in such a case would be to reduce personnel at Station 6 in Laguardo. Given proximity to Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, any calls to that service area would be close enough to adequate emergency requirements needed by a patient. In that instance, Station 3 and Station 9 could provide back up.
The second station that would just run a BLS truck would be Station 8 on Carthage Highway. Cooper said that in such a situation, a paramedic from Station 1 or Station 9 could intercept if needed.
While he admits it's not ideal, Cooper said that it's what the agency must do when it runs up against employee shortages. After the agency has maxed out overtime and part-time hours, Cooper believes that those shortages are inevitable.
It wasn't that long ago that the county was having to turn applicants away.
"We were pretty much at the top of surrounding counties, outside of Nashville," Cooper said. "Now, we're at the point where we're running shortages. A lot of that started with the pandemic. It added a whole lot more stress to the job."
As for the surrounding counties being competitive, Cooper said most of them raised their wages and have been successful in employee retention.
"It's time to catch up with surrounding counties," Cooper said. "It's something we need to do immediately before it gets worse. We have to be a competitive county."
For their part, Sumner County is using COVID relief funds to help offset its employee shortages. Sumner County EMS Chief Greg Miller said that a few weeks ago, his agency saw that it might lose a few employees, so Miller sat down with the county mayor, budget chairman and finance director. They agreed to give a raise of 15% to the county's first responders, law-enforcement officers and dispatchers.
According to Miller, it caused some of those employees seeking to go elsewhere to reconsider and led to an increase in applications, helping with the staffing shortage.
Sumner County has not had to shut down any stations, but they have improvised equipment and personnel usage to try to limit disruptions to normal service.
Since the funding for those pay raises has come from COVID relief, it's not guaranteed to be around forever, but it will continue for at least 30 months.
Miller indicated that Sumner County was conducting one, because it's always important to be competitive with surrounding counties. However, in this case, the county couldn't wait for a pay study.
"Any time you have a shortage of emergency response personnel, if ambulance stations are shut down, people will die," Miller — who emphasized his urgency to ensure emergency medical response is not hampered in his county — said. "That's not to be harsh, that's to be realistic."
District 9 County Commissioner Sara Patton, whose district is home to Station No. 7, said that there is not enough time to wait on a pay study.
"People should not have their life on the line for 13.57 cents an hour to go into a burning building or possibly be injured by whatever emergency there is," Patton said.
Patton recently informed several of the people on the commission about that and said that "they couldn't believe how low it was."
"We can't keep waiting and waiting," Patton said. "We have to increase our first responders' pay."
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said that the county decided to conduct a pay study nine years ago.
"We knew we had good benefits, better than anybody around us, but we knew our pay was not where it needed to be," Hutto said.
Hutto said that realization prompted the county to institute a pay study that would be repeated every three years, but the mayor acknowledged that three years may "too much of a gap."
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