Call Volume Rises While Staffing Levels Stay the Same
Operating with the same staffing levels since 2009, in 2017 Marshfield Fire and Rescue responded to a significant increase of calls from the previous year – a trend that is expected to continue into 2018, and beyond.
In July 2017, Marshfield Fire and Rescue began a new partnership with the Marshfield Clinic Health System (MCHS) and the Marshfield Medical Center to provide much-needed ambulance transportation for patients being transported to/from another hospital for additional specialty care services.
In addition to the interfacility transports, the department began providing paramedic intercept services to area basic life support (BLS) and Advanced Emergency Medical Technician (AEMT) ambulance services for patients needing advanced level of care before arriving at the hospital.
Last week alone, members of the department were assisting with ambulance transfers from Rice Lake, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Winnebago.
“We were literally in all corners of the state,” said Marshfield Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Owen.
All members of the department are Critical Care Paramedic certified, helping to ensure that the care they provide on their more than 2,500 annual calls is top-notch.
“Last year, our call volume increased by 383 calls,” said Chief Scott Owen. “That’s basically just in the second half of the year, because we started doing additional transfers July 1. It’s a huge jump and that’s only half a year.”
In the first quarter of 2016, concurrent call volume was 39.27%. This means that at least two of the departments four ambulances were out on a call at the same time during 39.27% of calls. In the corresponding first quarter of 2017, concurrent call volume was 43.08%. In the third quarter, it was at 49.83%. In the fourth quarter, concurrent call volume was at 52.28%.
“In January 2018, we ran 341 ambulance calls, compared to in January of ‘17, we ran 257. So, there was a 84-call increase from last year,” said Owen. “That’s a significant increase. Our concurrent call volume between 2016 and 2017 went up 16%. So, at the same time, two or more rigs are out of the station on call 47% of the time.”
While call numbers and concurrent call numbers continue to climb, staffing levels remain stagnant, putting strain on the current staff and pressure on the overtime budget.
“We incurred quite a bit of overtime in ‘17 for overtime and we were over what was budgeted, but these are the types of things that we can’t predict. We’re doing a lot more, but working with the same staffing levels,” said Owen. “There has been no change in staffing, and there actually has been less staffing because of people out on family leave. We’re also short one person right now, and have been anywhere between 1-2 people down pretty much the last half of the year and going into this year.”
Though adding on the contract with the Clinic was a factor, day-to-day 9-1-1 calls are what is on the rise.
“As a community, we are getting older. I really do think that’s a big portion of it,” said Owen. “In 2016, we ran 1,449 calls involving patients age 60+. Last year, we ran 1,731. They do make up the majority of our call volume.”
In Marshfield, about 18% of the population is over 60, and this population makes up about 60% of calls.
Owen said that Marshfield is not alone in many of its staffing issues.
“One of the key things with increase in call volume, and it doesn’t matter where you are in this country because every ambulance service is facing this, in most departments you have ‘the old guys’ and ‘the new guys’. The new guys are the ones that most times end up running all of the ambulance calls because the older guys have other responsibilities,” said Owen.
“What happens is we get the young paramedics that are in the first ambulance, and it’s the same ones over and over and they get tired. We have pretty much the same people running the calls. I hate the word ‘burnout,’ I really do, but they get to that point. That’s a big thing we are working on for our staff this year.”
Owen added that sleep deprivation is another current major concern in the EMS world, one that his department is working to prevent in Marshfield, but finding challenging due to limited staffing.
“If you have a paramedic out there that is exhausted, they can screw up on drug doses and procedures. Yes, revenue is important, but I need to look out for the people here,” he said. “There are things we are going to do internally so we can help them, but it’s a short-term fix. Something has to be done long term. Additional staff would help because we could rotate calls easier.”
Another somewhat unique challenge that Marshfield faces is EMT/Paramedics are all cross-trained as firefighters or fire officers.
“Let’s say we are out on an ambulance call and we get a fire call. If we’re at 8 crew members that day, now we’re down to 5 (three are on the ambulance),” explained Owen. “This means we can’t take another ambulance call until the fire is dealt with.”
In a case like this, other area ambulance services assist.
“Spencer takes over if available. They are our first call. But, they are not always available either,” said Owen. “Then we try Stratford, then Pittsville, and we’re getting further and further out. Our primary responsibility is the City of Marshfield. Our 911 is our primary, intercepts secondary, but we are trying to provide the best service that we can for the central region. We don’t want citizens outside of the area to suffer if there is something we can do to help.”
Since taking over the role of Chief last year, Owen has been working on internal communications and morale building in the department. A new policy at the station allows paramedics to sleep in even after their shift is over. Instead of waking them up when it’s time to go home, Owen allows them to sleep so they are not driving home tired and unsafely. At least until more staffing is procured, this policy will continue.
Though calls may be increasing, he assures residents that there has been no decline in the level of service.
“Procedurally, I think we’re doing good,” he said. “We’re building good relationships with
surrounding communities. “We’re doing cross training with LifeLink III and building a good working relationship with them. We are looking forward to working with them more when they are here officially in May.”
Finding staffing can be challenging, as recruitment and retention in the fire service is on the decline nationwide, but Owen is hoping that the budget will allow him to pursue more staffing.
“The amount of candidates has decreased dramatically across the country. We are working on increasing recruitment and retention, going to job fairs and things like that,” said Owen. “Another challenge is trying to find people that want to work in the public sector- it’s not there and we don’t know why.”
This is Part 1 in a series. Check back soon for more from Marshfield Fire & Rescue.