Following up on a reader’s news tip, reporter Sarah Fay Campbell combed through government documents and discovered an ongoing problem causing frequent periods in which some fire stations and equipment were deactivated. As reported in Sunday’s editions and online, she discovered there was a staff shortage caused by multiple factors.
One is the consequence of the county ending its contract for ambulance services and instead assigning the duty to the Fire Department. It was a correct move, as evidenced by the awards the agency has received for quality, including ranking as the best in the multi-county district. That’s no small accomplishment in a short time, and county residents are the main beneficiaries.
Adding the “rescue” to the fire-rescue department complicated staffing, though, because firefighters were trained as paramedics and emergency medical technicians and are now expected to fill either role in fighting fires or treating patients. While the added training better equipped the personnel, it created job pressures, frustration and employee turnover.
Modern engineering and construction techniques mean there are far fewer fires these days. Most emergency calls are for medical problems caused by accidents or illness, so the paramedic role resulted in less downtime than firefighters were accustomed to.
At the same time, the paramedic pay had not kept up with surrounding fire and rescue agencies, leaving the county vulnerable to employee poaching. Coweta taxpayers have been funding the initial certification and training that allowed staff to walk into better-paying jobs elsewhere.
The county is to be commended for finally getting on top of this situation with the funding and hiring of 15 more. Fire Chief Pat Wilson is also recognizing that not every trained paramedic of EMT is willing to also fight fires, so he is experimenting with some hires who will help on the fire scene with wrangling hoses and other chores that don’t involve exposure to flames and heat. It is the type of flexibility and creativity that earned Wilson the professional accolades that led to his selection as chief in the first place.
Being adequately staffed to handle either circumstance is vital, not only to the safety of our residents, but also to attracting employers.