Study Requests Additional Ambulance for West Virginia City

Charleston’s fire chief hopes officials can answer several questions he has regarding a recent study of his department during a committee meeting today at City Hall.

Members of the Public Safety Committee will discuss the study with officials from System Planning Corp.’s TriData Division, the company that compiled the study. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Fire Chief Chuck Overstreet is eager to talk to company officials. Of particular interest to him is a recommendation that the department staff an additional ambulance.

The department operates four, Overstreet said. The study strongly suggests adding a fifth ambulance to the fleet, but Overstreet said that would be very difficult.

“Right now we have a problem staffing our four ambulances,” he said.

Mayor Danny Jones agreed.

“It’s hard for us to get paramedics for our ambulances,” he said.

Charleston’s paramedics must also serve as firefighters. Anyone hired as a paramedic must therefore pass the firefighter physical, which can be strenuous, Overstreet said.

“We have a pretty high fail rate on the physical part of the test,” he said. “And a lot of people don’t want to be a firefighter, they just want to be a paramedic.”

Overstreet also believes the city doesn’t pay paramedics enough to attract new individuals to the position.

Firefighters who serve as paramedics are paid $1,800 more a year than someone who is just a firefighter, Overstreet said.

Firefighters start out at $35,211 per year, City Finance Director Joe Estep said. Therefore, a paramedic/firefighter would receive $37,011 during his or her first year, he said.

Firefighters/paramedics also receive $2.50 more an hour when they are riding in an ambulance, Overstreet said.

“If we want to get medics, and keep medics, we have to pay them more than that,” Overstreet said.

The study suggests that paramedics should be on duty for 24 hours at a time. Right now, firefighters/paramedics serve 12 hours as a paramedic and 12 hours as a firefighter. They work for 24 straight hours and are then given two consecutive days off.

Working for 24 hours straight on an ambulance would cause too much fatigue, Overstreet said.

Charleston paramedics responded to 12,538 emergency medical service calls in 2009, according to the study. This is well above the average of 8,326 calls in other cities studied.

“These calls wear them out,” he said.

The study also suggests the fire department could staff the fifth ambulance by eliminating one rescue truck and using those men and women as paramedics.

“Not all of the firefighters on our rescue trucks are paramedics,” Overstreet said. “So how would this help us?”

An alternative would be to eliminate the ambulance service altogether and allow the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority to take over service in the city, according to the study.

“I wouldn’t like that unless the county could dedicate at least four ambulances just for the city,” he said.

He has heard of problems with similar arrangements in some cities in other states.

“I’ve heard from a lot of other cities in other areas that the counties didn’t follow through with their promises after they took over the ambulance service in the city,” he said. “At least with our ambulance service we know that we have ambulances dedicated to the city.”

The ambulance authority has not begun to study such a proposal and doesn’t know if four additional ambulances could be dedicated exclusively to Charleston, said Mike Jarrett, public information officer for the ambulance authority

Charleston has 44 firefighters who double as paramedics. The budget allows for 60, Overstreet said.

Currently the department has enough paramedics/firefighters to staff all four ambulances 24 hours a day, he said. But they normally have to work overtime to do so.

The study suggests Charleston “far exceeds the average for the amount of money spent on overtime.”

Charleston spent $1,160,267 on overtime in its fire department in 2010. This far exceeds all of the other cities surveyed. For example, Roanoke, Va., spent $77,000.

Overstreet believes this will be a difficult problem to overcome since Charleston has 176 active firefighters. The city budgeted for 186, but has not allowed the department to begin hiring new personnel.

“We either have to fill these spots using overtime or the city has to give us more people,” Overstreet said.

Jones said the amount of overtime given to firefighters and paramedics is a management issue.

“And we’re going to deal with this,” he said.

Jones pointed out that 12 firefighters currently stationed at the Corridor G station behind Applebee’s soon would be available to fill shifts in other stations. Charleston City Council recently agreed to turn over operation of that station to South Charleston.

Overstreet also believes the elimination of these 12 positions will have an immediate impact and reduce overtime expenditures. But he doesn’t believe it will completely solve the problem.

Staffing levels in the department also are being looked at, Jones said.

“We’re looking at who is stationed where and how many people we have,” he said.

City Manager David Molgaard believes the study provides a “starting point” for improving efficiency. He said the study would be a major topic of conversation for council members for some time.

“We’re going to have to do some further analysis,” he said.

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