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DC paramedic departures causing major staffing concerns

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WASHINGTON -

The District of Columbia is losing paramedics at an alarming rate and they are not being replaced.

53 have resigned or retired since Kenneth Ellerbe became fire chief in 2011.

It is an exodus that has led to a critical staffing shortage with advanced life support units going unfilled every day.

The firefighters’ union has been sounding the alarm for months, telling D.C. councilmembers and anyone who will listen, the net loss of paramedics has created a “crisis” situation with first responders forced to work 36-hour shifts and advanced life support units left off the streets every single day.

Normal protocol has 14 medic units staffed during every shift. It is a number designed to make sure advanced life support is available within minutes of a 911 call in every ward in the city.

But as paramedics leave without being replaced, those 14 medic units have dwindled.

According to the firefighters union in 2011, two to three Advanced Life Support units were downgraded to Basic Life Support every day.

In 2012, the numbers went from four to five, and so far this year, it is averaging five to six downgrades every day.

"Pretty simply, the basic difference between a paramedic and an EMT is that the paramedic brings the ER to you in the first 20 minutes, so everything the ER can do in those first critical minutes, a paramedic can do for you in the field," said Paramedic Joe Papariello in an interview Thursday.

Emergency medical technicians cannot administer drugs. It is a vital function in some trauma cases.

"There are a lot of drugs that we can give,” said Papariello, the Union’s EMS official. “Over 30 in our protocols … if you are having a heart attack or you have a broken bone, we can deliver those.”

But as paramedics leave, those services have diminished.

Take for example the month of April. According to the union in April 2011, more than 23 percent of the scheduled Advanced Life Support units were taken off the streets.

In April of last year, it was more than 34 percent, and so far this year, it has risen to more than 42 percent.

"And when we don't have enough units on the street, units have to respond out of their areas that they are supposed to protect, and it puts a stress on the system and on the individual, and that's why a lot of our medics are leaving,” said Papariello.

The staffing shortage has also lead to forced overtime. In 2012, according to the union, 185 times paramedics were held over for a 36-hour shift. So far this year, it’s happened 136 times.

Just this month on May 9, the fire department announced in a special order three more firefighter/paramedics had decided to resign.

"We are in a crisis mode,” said Union President Ed Smith. “I mean, in the 90's when they were closing firehouses, you had firehouse roulette. You didn't know where the wheel was going to stop. Right now today, we have medic unit roulette and I hope it doesn't stop on the wrong person.”

On Friday morning, Chief Ellerbe will go before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee where he is expected to testify about his ambulance deployment plan.

He declined our request for an on-camera interview.

In recent testimony, the chief told the council he plans to train current EMTs to become paramedics. But as the union points out, that could take up to two years.


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