Austin EMTs detail understaffing issues, call volume ‘record’ ahead of budget session


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gearing up for budgetary discussions in advance of fiscal year 2021-22, some Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services personnel are sharing concerns over staffing shortages and their impacts on current employees.

A paramedic with ATCEMS detailed “a cry for help” among personnel in an anonymous message to KXAN, noting mandatory overtime and understaffed shifts.

“Coming off my third 24 hour EMS shift within five days is getting harder and harder. I’m burnt out. We all are,” the statement read in part. “With call volume skyrocketing and not enough medics to respond, a career I once loved, once proud to talk about, has made a turn for the worse.”

Austin City Council will address the proposed FY22 budget and property tax rate in a work session Tuesday at 10 a.m. ATCEMS officials will participate as part of that conversation.

According to city documents, the proposed FY22 budget denotes $14.3 million in allocated funding for emergency medical services, a decline from $15.6 million approved for EMS funding in the current fiscal year.

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Association President Selena Xie told KXAN Monday ATCEMS is currently short by about 110 people out of a staff of 600. She said the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on healthcare workers and the winter storm led some workers to leave the industry altogether, an additional loss on top of retirees.

As the delta variant increases hospitalizations and Austin-Travis County nears a Stage 5 coronavirus risk designation, she said that shortage has become all the more apparent.

“We’re seeing that being reflected in our call volume, which just increases the stress and the workload on our medics who are already feeling very stretched thin right now,” she said.

On Sunday, ATCEMS received 637 calls for service, a record high daily call volume for a non-holiday weekend, Xie said. Paired with a staffing shortage, she said that has exacerbated overtime concerns.

Traditionally, each EMS personnel works a 24-hour on-call shift once a month. Now, with shortages, Xie said that mandatory on-call shift has increased to two times per month.

As the city of Austin finalizes its FY22 budget, Xie said the Association is requesting Austin City Council provide funding resources to help backfill gaps in paramedics coverage.

“When we add an ambulance, we add 12 medics per ambulance. But our first ambulances were not staffed that way, and we’ve never backfilled for those positions,” she said. “And so when we are at a time of crisis, when record numbers of people leave and when we can’t hire, we have a huge staffing shortage. And so while….there’s not that much we can do right now, we can make sure this never happens again in the future.”

Xie said increased staffing on ATCEMS ambulances would translate to about 40 additional paramedics and an estimated $3.9 million. The Association is also requesting moving up next summer’s EMS class from July to late 2021 to expedite that process.

“A really big issue is that we have very, very high standards for our paramedics — which is great,” she said. “If you come into this department, it can take up to a year and a half before you’re actually working as a paramedic. And so we’re trying to figure out, for those really high performing paramedics that come into this department, is there a way to fast track them to get them onto the streets faster as a working paramedic?”

Due to scheduling conflicts, ATCEMS officials were unavailable for an interview with KXAN Monday. Following Tuesday’s FY22 budget work session, officials said they would be available for further comment.

In an Austin Public Safety Commission meeting Monday, ATCEMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown said there are 115 vacancies in staffing, with 528 full-time employees out of 643 authorized positions. An EMS cadet academy, which began July 19, includes 33 cadets, who will complete their training Oct. 8.

Brown said that, given current vacancies, there is some overtime concerns for staff as employees are out sick, on vacation or out for an injury. He said the current 33-cadet academy will help make a dent in vacancies and will provide some relief for current full-time employees come October.

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