Jun. 20--When Daniel Ozimek stood before Forsyth County commissioners at last month's budget hearings, he asked them one simple question: Would they want a paramedic who's been on the clock for 23 hours to make a critical medical decision for them?
Ozimek, the director of Forsyth County Emergency Medical Services, got the answer he was looking for days later when the commissioners approved the 2007-08 budget.
Commissioners agreed to hire more paramedics to allow EMS employees to transition from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. The budget has $200,000 to add 13 paramedics and supervisors, all of whom will work on 12-hour rotations.
The commitment made EMS the only county department to get significant personnel increases in the new budget.
Ozimek said that a similar financial commitment is needed for the next three fiscal years to add the staff members required to allow the department to move completely off of a 24-hour work schedule.
Currently, 75 of the county's 117 paramedics work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off. EMS handles about 33,000 calls a year.
"It's very important to us that we try to accomplish this transition as soon as possible," Ozimek said. "We're at the point now where we have to do something and do something quick because of the call volume and the strain that it puts on our employees."
He said that the 24-hour shift creates sleep-deprived paramedics who should not be caring for patients and driving ambulances. For example, three years ago, an ambulance in Forsyth County got into an accident after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. No one was hurt, and the driver still works in the department, Ozimek said.
County Manager Dudley Watts said that commissioners are committed to completing the schedule change but not necessarily within three years. He said that commissioners are waiting to make that decision until they have more data that describes the current working conditions.
The county is installing a new computer program that will track how many calls EMS workers receive, when those calls come in and where they come from.
That data may be used to prioritize where in the county to start placing the additional paramedics.
"We believe that the inability to get uninterrupted sleep affects us, but getting the hard data had been difficult," Watts said.
Some North Carolina EMS departments have already moved to 12-hour shifts. In Guilford and Durham counties most paramedics work 12-hour shifts.
Ozimek said he has been pushing for Forsyth County to make the change for about five years.
He said the department needs at least 38 new positions SEmD including paramedics, supervisors and training officers -- to staff that transition.
The 13 new EMS employees are not scheduled to start until after January.
"Our backs are against the wall because our call volume keeps going up," Ozimek said.
"They realize that we had to take a big step this year and they made the determination to go ahead to get the process started and get it started aggressively."
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