May 13--With a growing need for more paramedics not only in Columbus but across the nation, the mayor and city council are trying to increase salaries for some personnel in the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services to keep them on the job.
"Everybody in the country is short on paramedics," Assistant Fire Chief Robert Futrell said. "We are trying to give more incentives to keep the ones we got."
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said two proposals totaling $88,619 will be considered Tuesday when the Budget Review Committee of Columbus Council meets to look at the city's proposed $268 million budget. The biggest proposal would add incentives to the existing pay structure of fire and emergency medical services by defining 36 fire medic/paramedics positions as requiring paramedic certification and raising that pay level from PS 14 to PS 15 at an annual budget cost of $57,331. With approval from the committee, the second would increase fire medic/paramedic incentive pay from $5,000 per person per year to $6,000 at a cost of $31, 288.
Tomlinson said the proposals are well targeted and should help in a city with limited resources. "The human reaction is to try to throw money to solve the problem, but we don't have that kind of money to throw around," she said. "We have to be very targeted in our distribution of our limited resources."
Starting pay for paramedics in Columbus is $42,567 per year. It is $504 more than Fulton County, Ga., at $42,063 but almost $10,000 less than the $52,395 paid in Nashville, Tenn.
In comparisons with other agencies in the region, Tomlinson said Columbus is not leading the pack, but the city isn't bad at all. "Where we don't compare favorably is with the private sector," she said. "You know the nurses and paramedics in hospitals or the other private sector jobs for medical corporations, they can just pay better."
Pay for Columbus paramedics is in an acceptable and pretty good range, she said. "The public sector can never pay as well as the private sector," the mayor said. "We like to think we have good benefits."
Tomlinson said the city needs 32 fire medics to add to the 26 the department has now. They are used to staff six city ambulances, each unit requiring a paramedic and an emergency medical technician. While the city has a total of 44 fire medics in the entire department, many with the rank of sergeant and lieutenant are riding in ambulances to give the crews a break.
Under normal duties, those higher-ranking paramedics would be working as supervisors and not in ambulances. "We have been using sergeants and lieutenants to help shore up units to give medics we do have to give them a little break," Futrell said.
Futrell said the city started seeing signs of a need for more paramedics two years ago. Some paramedics started their own business, others went to nursing school or moved because of a family situation, and five or six left to go to similar higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
At that time, the call volume was increasing so much that no ambulances were available, and the department had to call on mutual aid from Harris County, Phenix City or Fort Benning.
The need for ambulances was highlighted Sept. 14 last year, when a 4-month-old girl in cardiac distress was transported in a fire truck from a Forest Avenue apartment to the Midtown Medical Center because no ambulances were available. A ladder truck came from Brown Avenue, because it was closest.
Futrell said an ambulance was actually in service on that call that day, but it was so far away. "The lieutenant on the fire truck decided it would be quicker if they just went ahead and put baby on the fire truck and transport it on the truck," he said.
The ladder truck had all the advanced life-saving equipment on board. The only equipment the ambulance would have provided is a stretcher, Futrell said. About 22 minutes after arriving at the hospital, the child was pronounced dead. "He was just trying to give the baby the best chance to survive," Futrell said of the lieutenant's action.
Response times have improved to within five minutes since more ambulances were placed into service in March. The city has six full-time private ambulance services and one also is staffed at peak load from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. During the day, he said the city is running 13 ambulances.
Departments across the state are trying to fill paramedics positions. Futrell said he recently saw 500 postings for paramedics online. Some are looking for more than 20 while others need more than 30.
The Columbus department makes rounds at the high schools and job fairs to recruit paramedics. An applicant has to be 21 to work in public safety in Columbus, so there is a delay before they may be hired. "That is just one of the issues we had to deal with," he said.
In a department with 380 personnel, Futrell said applicants can work as firefighters, emergency medical technicians and the highly skilled paramedics. It may take up to two years to get paramedics trained. The school is hard, and tests are difficult.
Futrell said he would like to have the entire department trained up to advanced EMT level, but getting all trained for paramedic level is next to impossible.
"It's tough," he said. "Just going through training is tough, and passing the test to get a license is tough."
Ben Wright: 706-571-8576, @bfwright87
Here's how paramedics salaries of the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services stack up against other agencies across the nation:
Nashville , Tenn. -- $52,395
Clayton County, Ga.- $47,157
Henry County, Ga. -- $43,723
Coweta County, Ga. -- $42,611
Columbus, Ga. -- $42,567
Fulton County, Ga. -- $42,063
Birmingham, Ala. -- $41,454
Marietta, Ga. -- $40,134
Forsyth County, Ga.- $39,806
Atlanta -- $38,780
Gainesville, Ga.- $34,530
Source: Columbus Consolidated Government
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