By Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle
Sedgwick County, Kansas, commissioners approved $2,500 sign-on bonuses for paramedics Wednesday, the latest move in a massive overhaul of the county’s Emergency Medical Services division following a Wichita Eagle investigation into the troubled department.
Dr. John Gallagher, former EMS director, and Dr. Carolina Pereira, assistant medical director, resigned last month after a flood of complaints by street-level EMS workers, who said the two leaders were driving the once nationally renowned department into the ground, chasing away experienced paramedics and putting lives at risk.
A monthslong Eagle investigation found more than a third of the EMS workforce left the department in Gallagher’s first two years as director, and ambulance response times had declined to a point where the odds of getting life-saving medical attention in the Wichita area within 9 minutes of calling 911 were less than one in three.
In place of Gallagher and Pereira, County Manager Tom Stolz has hired an interim director of EMS operations and an interim medical director, both with deep ties to the department.
Kevin Lanterman, a longtime paramedic, was named interim director. Dr. Kevin Brinker, a former Sedgwick County paramedic who left the department in 1999 to attend medical school, was named medical director.
The changes seem to have stanched the department’s bleeding of EMS workers. In less than two years under Gallagher, 92 employees left the EMS department, at a rate of four employees a month. Since Gallagher’s removal more than a month ago, no more employees have quit.
Now, the county is trying to figure out how to hire around 20 paramedics needed to fully staff the department. Paramedics are in short supply across the country, and replacing them can take years, as a paramedic requires two years of schooling before being qualified to practice paramedicine in Kansas. Local community colleges face lower enrollment in the paramedic program due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of the county’s 2022 budget that passed Wednesday, commissioners also approved spending $185,000 to fully fund the education of six EMTs and six paramedics.
Commissioner Jim Howell suggested $2,500 may not be enough to attract paramedics, given the competition with other regional EMS providers. For example, nearby Oklahoma City is offering $20,000 signing bonuses to paramedics.
“I’m a little concerned about EMS being $2,500. I think it should be more,” Howell said.
Howell said the county should consider increasing it later in the year, based on how much money is available in the 2021 budget for EMS employees that was not spent due to the staffing shortage.
“I think we’re still in crisis mode,” Howell said. “Although I think we’ve fixed a number of things in the EMS organization, it’s still a crisis. So much so our response times are not better and ambulances are not out on the street. We have a public safety problem, and public safety is our number one priority.”
The commission also approved $1,500 signing bonuses for probation officers and correction workers along with a $500 bonus for the county corrections’ cook position.
Sedgwick County last week approved signing bonuses for facilities maintenance workers ($1,500), 911 call takers and dispatchers ($1,500) and Comcare case managers ($2,500) and social workers ($5,000).
Sheena Schmutz, county human resources director, said the bonuses are commensurate with education required for each position.
Facilities maintenance workers and 911 operators are entry-level positions. Paramedics require a two-year associate’s degree. Comcare case managers and probation officers require a bachelor’s degree. And Comcare social workers require a master’s degree.
“We will plan to revisit with the commission in six months,” Schmutz said. “And we will survey these employees who do receive the signing bonus to get their feedback.”
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