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‘It’s never been this low': Conn. fire chief sounds alarm on paramedic shortage

New Haven Fire Chief Fire Chief John Alston said the department has 15 paramedics compared to 50 the department normally has

By Mark Zaretsky
New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A national shortage of paramedics is deeply affecting the New Haven Fire Department, which, with 53 vacancies among more than 300 budgeted firefighter positions, is down to about one-third of its normal complement of paramedics, Fire Chief John Alston said.

“Normally, we would have about 48 to 50 paramedics,” Alston said Wednesday. “We’re down to about 15.”

With regard to overall staff, “It’s never been this low in my tenure,” Alston recently told the Board of Alders’ Finance Committee, referring to the 53 vacancies.

The vacancies have resulted in overtime spending climbing, but beyond that, Alston worries about firefighters’ mental health as they’re called upon to work extra shifts, he said.

In addition, the shortage of paramedics nationwide has created a situation in which fire departments across Connecticut and beyond are recruiting each other’s trained staff, officials said.

“Much like the (police department) with officers, fire departments everywhere are poaching each other’s paramedics,” Assistant Chief of Operations Daniel Coughlin told the alders.

“They’re a hot commodity,” Coughlin said. “It is very expensive to go to paramedic school. There’s a lot of personal cost. There is a lot of personal time. Unfortunately, for the New Haven Fire Department and the City of New Haven, we’re battling uphill just like every municipality across the country. There is a national shortage of paramedics.”

Alston said, however, that at no time has the shortage put the Fire Department in a position where there’s no paramedic coverage.

“If all of my paramedics are on a call, then AMR comes in” to cover for Fire Department paramedics, Alston said.

He said that if the Fire Department ever gets into a tough spot, it also can rely on “the oldest agreement” it has to seek additional manpower: mutual aid from neighboring departments.

One remedy that New Haven, like many fire departments, has turned to is lateral hirings of fully-trained, certified firefighter paramedics who either work for or are retired from other fire departments, according to Alston and Mayor Justin Elicker.

“Lateral paramedics was a good move or a good answer for us, and we were able to get that in place,” said Alston. Five new paramedics are going through the fire academy as part of that effort, he said.

Changing the rules to smooth the way for more lateral hires “is something different that we’ve done in both the Police Department and the Fire Department,” said Elicker.

The Fire Department is required to have a minimum of three paramedics on a shift, or 12 over the course of each day’s four shift, Alston said.

If it runs short, “we have to hold people on or order people in,” said Alston.

“Most of them do not mind ... but it’s a two-edged sword,” and the added hours people are working can create other difficulties, Alston said.

Under the Fire Department’s union contract, it must have a minimum of 72 people during each of the day’s four shifts, Alston said.

But without overtime, it currently is staffed to have numbers in the 50s, said Coughlin.

Often, when overtime is required, it’s the older — and higher-paid — firefighters who work those extra shifts, said Alston.

“The younger firefighters that we’re bringing in now are seeking a work-life balance,” Alston said. “So, the firefighters who are working the overtime are our senior firefighters who we pay the highest rates.”

Mayor Elicker’s proposed budget would increase the Fire Department’s budget by slightly more than $400,000, from about $39.9 million to about $40.35 million, officials told the Finance Committee.

That would include slightly more than $400,000 in additional overtime, most of which would be covered by a one-time infusion of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, which will soon be phased out, according to their presentation to the alders.

But beyond the current year, there’s an answer for the overtime issues.

‘“So what I need are more bodies,” Alston said Wednesday. “That’s what will bring my overtime back into balance.”

Elicker said that what’s happening with paramedics in New Haven is “something that cities around the nation are going through right now.

“With the number that we currently have, it increases our overtime budget,” he said.

“It’s important for us to fill these positions,” Elicker said. “If we lose anymore, we’ll have real challenges.”

“The men and women who are in these positions are working long hours under difficult conditions,” Elicker said. “We want them to be healthy. We want our residents to get the best services possible.”

To get more paramedics working, one of the things the department is doing is working with the Yale New Haven Center for EMS , which has an accelerated paramedic program, said Alston.

“The cost for a paramedic program used to be about $20,000 to $30,000,” Alston said. “Now the acelerated one-year program is at $11,000. So, we look to our firefighters who are already on the job to go to paramedic school,” he said. “That’s one of the ways we’re going to ‘grow our own’ paramedics.”

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