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Plan to cut EMS positions, hire FFs causes debate among Iowa officials

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott opposes to going to a firefighter-based EMS model

By Dolly Butz
Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The City Council voted Monday to add four firefighter positions in effort to help Sioux City Fire Rescue fully staff ambulances.

The city has seen more firefighter candidates than EMT and paramedic candidates. Fire Chief Tom Everett told the council before the vote that there were no paramedic candidates on the most recent list. Of the five EMT candidates, he said four were hired and one declined the position. The EMS division currently has four slots open. He there are about 10 firefighter candidates available to fill positions, but no firefighter positions open.

Sioux City Fire Rescue started the new EMS division on Jan. 1, 2018 to fill the void left by Siouxland Paramedics, the nonprofit agency that stopped providing emergency services due to financial difficulties.

“We’ve been six years with this EMS division. After that first year, we’ve kind of had openings that we were always chasing,” Everett said. “Basically, since that time, we ramped up recruiting. We came to you and got pay raises. We came to you and got schedule changes. We’ve done mileage enhancements for residency, several other things that just haven’t allowed us to catch up with that staffing with the turnover.”

Firefighters are required to have an Iowa EMT certification before being hired and they currently perform EMT and paramedic duties, including being first responders on emergency medical services calls. The move to hire firefighters to fill current vacant EMT and paramedic positions will increase the amount of time Medic 5 in Morningside is staffed and decrease overall overtime.

The vote was 4 to 0. Mayor Pro Tem Dan Moore left the meeting early, so he did not vote on the matter. The council, however, deferred a vote on a resolution that would authorize Everett to fill vacant EMT, paramedic and lead paramedic positions with firefighter positions through attrition or retirements.

Mayor Bob Scott said he used the ambulance service at least three times in the last four or five years and didn’t have any issues with the care he received.

“I can tell you that I couldn’t tell the difference if it was a paramedic or a fireman. The care was excellent,” he said. “I don’t understand why it’s all or none. There are people who do not want to be firefighters who are very capable of taking care of my family when the need arises.”

The additional costs of firefighters are, or are nearly offset by savings realized from testing, hiring, training, uniform and PPE, on-call personnel, and overtime currently being spent. The immediate impact is estimated at $36,000.

Scott said he is opposed to going to a firefighter-based EMS model, because some people are “excellent paramedics” who may not be able to test to be firefighters.

“I think you should retain some of these positions as EMTs and paramedics,” he said.

Councilman Matthew O’Kane said he is not against having more well-trained firefighters, but he took issue with the fact that individuals on the “rescue side” were surprised to see such a resolution come before the council.

“I can only imagine what some of these people in EMT are thinking, like how many more years until I just don’t have a job. I think that’s a lot of stress to put on someone,” he said. “I’m just concerned that now we’ve got some people in a panic and feel like they’ve had their positions targeted.”

Everett clarified that no current Sioux City Fire Rescue employees’ jobs are in jeopardy and noted that there are great employees on both sides. He said the proposal creates staffing flexibility, since firefighters can work on an ambulance or a fire truck throughout the city.

“When we have an extra firefighter that day and maybe an opening on an ambulance, we can shift that firefighter over to the ambulance. So it’s not a given that there’s automatically going to be firefighters on ambulances right out of the gate. It’s going to depend on staffing shortages,” he said.

Councilwoman Julie Schoenherr asked if the EMT and paramedic career paths were being taken out of Sioux City and what individuals interested in pursuing those positions locally would do.

“We’re losing some people to other services and that includes the hospitals that would hire EMTs or paramedics, a transfer service that might hire EMTs, or whatever,” Everett said. “There’s other opportunities, but it certainly does lessen that opportunity in Sioux City .”

Liz Ford , a paramedic with Sioux City Fire Rescue who serves as vice president of Local 2796, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representing Sioux City Professional, Administrative, Technical and Supervisory employees, said she is aware of five individuals who want to apply as EMTs and become paramedics.

“We had six on the last list. I get it, it’s not 500 people. But we are gaining,” she said. “Those people want to do those jobs just as they want to be firefighters. Classes have people in them and these people want that as their profession.”

Ford told the council that each division is a “specialized craft.”

“It is our expertise, dedication and leadership that focuses and guides new EMTs and medics for the future to take care of us all,” she said. “Just looking at the experience is amazing, since the group that transitioned in 2018 has well over 200 years of experience. I would hate to see that go away for any reason.”

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