SC FD switches one ambulance to BLS as medic overtime nearly doubles hours

Officials chose to alter staffing for an ambulance that runs within city limits, where it can get to the hospital quicker


David Weissman
The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

GEORGETOWN COUNTY, S.C. — Facing a continual staffing shortage that has recently worsened, Georgetown County Fire/EMS has decided to start operating one of its ambulances without a trained paramedic on board.

Assistant Chief Tony Hucks said the decision was made as the department sought a way to reduce overtime requirements for its medics, who have been working nearly twice as many hours as normal lately.

Georgetown Fire operates five ambulances in the county, and this adjustment will turn the one that operates within city limits into a "basic truck," meaning it will operate with two EMTs instead of one EMT and one medic, Hucks said.

EMTs are able to conduct basic care such as administering CPR, while paramedics can perform more complex procedures including inserting IV lines and administering drugs, he noted.

They chose that ambulance, Hucks said, because most calls in city limits are within five minutes of a hospital and they'll have ambulances with medics on either side of the city to respond if needed.

"It's not ideal, nobody wants to drop down a service level on the ambulance, but it's just right now, just feel like it's the best thing," he said. "Obviously if we see where it's jeopardizing anything, we'll sit down and look at it again."

Hucks noted that other local fire/EMS also run ambulances without medics. Tony Casey, spokesman for Horry County Fire Rescue, confirmed that five of the department's 20 ambulances operate solely with EMTs.

Jeff Gore, a Georgetown Fire paramedic, previously told The Sun News the department needed more ambulances, noting they receive about 8,000 calls per year, and he believed they should have at least one unit per 1,000 calls.

Ongoing staffing shortage

The Sun News reported in July 2020 that Georgetown Fire's staffing shortage was so severe that fire engines frequently responded to calls with only one firefighter on the truck, despite national standards recommending a minimum of four.

At that time, the department had 11 vacancies, and county officials said they'd prioritize filling those vacancies. But Hucks said they're currently facing their largest shortage in recent memory, as recruiting and retaining personnel continues to be an issue.

Rather than raising wages as a possible solution — starting salaries in the department range $32,000-$38,000 — county officials adjusted the department's work and overtime calculation process, according to internal emails obtained via public records request.

The county spent more than $1 million in 2020 on overtime costs to Georgetown Fire and Midway Fire and Rescue employees, according to an email between Brandon Ellis, director of emergency services, and County Administrator Angela Christian.

The alterations implemented this year, including the elimination of fluctuating overtime rates and moving employees to a 24-hour shift with a 21-day pay cycle, was estimated to save the county about $250,000 based on 2020 budget data, the email stated.

Hucks said reception to those changes have been mixed within the department as some considered it as a disadvantage and others understanding it was a needed alteration.

The department remains hopeful, he said, that increased advertising of vacancies will soon result in more applications to ease the burden on current personnel.

"When you're short-staffed, it seems like it just affects everything," Hucks said.

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(c)2021 The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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