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L.A. PARAMEDIC CRISIS UNLEASHES EMOTIONS.

Byline: Jordan Smith Staff Writer

Veteran paramedics, union officials and even the Los Angeles Fire Department's own medical director delivered impassioned pleas Thursday before the fire commissioners and Chief William Bamattre to end the critical paramedic staffing shortages they said pose a significant threat to public safety.

Nearly 100 people gathered downtown for the first of three special meetings designed to address department staffing shortages, with Bamattre's policies and administration under fire from all quarters.

``You're expecting too much out of the paramedics and firefighters in this department,'' said Ron Myers, a 20-year veteran paramedic, who fought back tears while addressing the commission and the visibly uncomfortable Bamattre.

``And what does the department do to deal with all this? Not a hell of a lot.''

These sentiments were echoed by nine veteran paramedics who signed up to speak during the public comments segment of the four-hour-long meeting.

A series of Daily News stories recently outlined the severe shortages of paramedics, the stress they face and the danger posed to the public in emergencies.

All gathered - including union officials and medical director Dr. Marc Eckstein - said the department must hire more paramedics and must put more ambulances into service as soon as possible.

``I have heartburn when I see the same paramedics coming into the emergency room four shifts in a row - I'm working eight-hour shifts and they're working 24-hour shifts,'' said Eckstein, who is also an emergency room physician at the L.A. County/USC Medical Center.

``How can they possibly be at their best? It's unconscionable.''

Currently, there are 56 ambulances in use citywide and there are at least 54 paramedic positions vacant.

Critics contend that the department needs to hire at least 150 paramedics to reduce overtime and fatigue. Bamattre recently said he would like paramedics and ambulances in every station; that would require the department to hire at least 200 more paramedics.

Currently paramedics must go through firefighter training before being detailed to an ambulance. The average time it takes to put a new recruit through paramedic school and firefighter training is nearly two years.

Eckstein said the department should seek to hire 100 paramedics immediately and put them directly onto ambulances, rotating them through firefighter training once staffing problems are brought under control.

Because of a 1992 consolidation of paramedics and firefighters into one, dual-function job, the department has not been able to hire personnel who are only paramedic trained.

As well, due to an exception for firefighters in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the city does not have to pay overtime costs until firefighters have worked 53 hours in a week. No such exception exists for paramedics.

``It's a problem when we can't use paramedics on a resource for 18 months. What happens to their EMS skills in that time? Are they still any good? Do they still want to be paramedics?'' Eckstein asked.

He also contended that the FLSA costs would be negligible considering the size of the city and the possible threats to public safety incurred by not having paramedics on the street.

Eckstein's presentation garnered a round of applause from the crowd and netted praise from Fire Commission President David Fleming, who asked whether Eckstein would consider joining the commission's subcommittee.

``We would like to rely on you for a lot of the work we're doing,'' Fleming said.

A bristling Bamattre was quick to the microphone, saying that although he prides himself on encouraging ideas ``whether I agree with them or not,'' the commission needs to look at the possible implications of the ideas presented by Eckstein.

``We need to work together to find solutions,'' Bamattre said. ``We need to look to long-term solutions, not quick fixes.''

Firefighters union President Ken Buzzell challenged Bamattre, saying the department needs to solve the staffing shortages immediately. Staffing shortages cause resources - ambulances and engine companies - to be closed on a daily basis, he said. These closures cost lives, as recently as last month, he said.

Buzzell said staffing shortages left Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' district without a paramedic-staffed ambulance, he said.

``So it took an ambulance 11 minutes to get to a scene,'' he said. By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he said, the patient died.

``(Closures) are not uncommon, they are routine. Something needs to be done today,'' he said.

The presentation of Robert Scott - the department psychologist who has been conducting research into paramedic stress and fatigue - was postponed, because of time constraints, until the next meeting. Scott's preliminary research indicates that at least 32 percent of paramedics are suffering from extreme stress.

Further, commissioners hoped to add other department issues to the meeting's agenda - including the controversial one-plus-one program and current problems with the central dispatch system - but with the outpouring of emotional testimony about staffing shortages, the meeting ran long and time ran out. Fleming said he hopes to address these issues at later meetings.

Fleming said the second of three special meetings will take place in the San Fernando Valley on Sept. 28. The time and location of the meeting have yet to be announced.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 8, 2000
Words:848
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