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Mat-Su emergency responders organize against hours cap

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Rank and file emergency responders in the Mat-Su Borough are challenging new limits that cap them just below 30 hours a week, and they're calling on the borough to bring on a full-time squad of medics.

Paid on-call employees say the new hours policy has led to short staffing and longer response times on some ambulance and fire calls.

Responders, led by 28-year-old paramedic Ashley Cunnington, have started a petition to encourage the Mat-Su Assembly to fund more full-time positions. It had nearly 200 signatures as of Wednesday.

The group also started an open Facebook page -- "MSB responders for change" -- and are contacting union representatives who may attend a meeting Saturday. News media and borough officials are also invited.

"We're not trying to get rich on this," Cunnington said. "We're just trying to provide services without it being a second thought."

The borough's on-call medics work 12- to 24-hour shifts on five ambulances that rush to medical emergencies from Lake Louise to Trapper Creek, everything from Parks Highway wrecks to a choking child near Palmer to a stroke victim in Willow. They earn anywhere from $11.99 an hour for the lowest training level, Emergency Medical Technician I, to $21.69 for a paramedic, the highest.

Until last week, Cunnington worked 40 hours a week without benefits. As of Wednesday, she had already worked her 24-hour shift for the week; the borough limits on-call responders to 24 hours a week to leave time for training or other obligations.

"The system is so broken something needs to happen," she said.

The cap that started Jan. 1 comes in response to a critical state audit that found the borough was letting part-time employees, including paid on-call medics and firefighters, work too many hours without making them eligible for Alaska Public Employees' Retirement System benefits. Thirty hours a week is also the point at which the Affordable Care Act kicks in, officials say, though the federal government is still finalizing emergency responder rules.

About 80 percent of the borough's 430 paid on-call responders worked less than 30-hour weeks over the last three years, according to estimates from the borough's Emergency Services Department. But the ones that did sometimes worked 30, 40, or sometimes 50 hours a week

"We have a group of people who either are more highly certified than others or more highly available than others. That's what adds to the stability of the workforce," emergency services director Dennis Brodigan said. "This weakens our stability."

Brodigan said he hopes the Assembly will fund 14 new full-time medics in the next budget cycle plus another 14 over the two years after that. Compared to fire and rescue, the borough's emergency medical side is the busiest system with a sharp increase in call volume.

"We hope this is going to spur our Assembly to look at how we're providing this public safety to our community and give us the full-time employees we need to do our daily mission," said Brian Wallace, Mat-Su EMS chief for the core area around Palmer, Wasilla and Meadow Lakes. "That's really what we need and it's really hard to do it the way we are now."

Funding for the positions remains far from assured. Borough Manager John Moosey said he'll bring up the request at a work session on the budget Feb. 18.

Calendars for this week show several "holes" where there weren't enough on-call EMTs and paramedics to fill out ambulance crews.

The borough is filling the gaps with the 10 or 11 full-time medics on staff who get benefits and aren't affected by the new policy, officials say. Cunnington said she's heard of full-time medics working as much as 72 hours a week, leading to overtime costs she equated to the expense of 20 full-time positions a week plus on-call responders. Firefighters are also being toned out to respond to medical calls if ambulances aren't immediately available, eating into their weekly shifts, she said.

The borough's on-call reliance may come with hidden costs due to less turnover with full-time staff. Outfitting a first-year medic costs $6,382; a first-year firefighter costs the borough $13,600, according to borough estimates.

Wallace himself spent New Year's Day working a 12-hour ambulance shift.

He's also had to pull several experienced full-time medics off a practice of "chasing" calls when ambulances are already busy or in the borough's outlying areas like Willow or Sutton where it can be tricky to find available medics with advanced training.

Now two of the three full-time medics ride in ambulances and only one medic is available to chase calls, he said.

"For a number of years you were able to get paramedics to critically injured or ill people in those remote areas," Wallace said, of the chase medics. "We've been watching it. I haven't heard any stories that we've had delayed response times."

The hours cap has also led to another new policy that some responders say may make it even harder to get to medical emergencies fast.

As of Monday, all borough ambulance crews start their shifts at the Central Mat-Su Fire Department station in the middle of Wasilla instead of at least a crew each at Palmer and Meadow Lakes as well as several in Wasilla, the busiest station in terms of calls.

Wallace decided to start all shifts at Station 61 and then send ambulances to their usual locations only after supervisors make sure there's enough staffing to do that.

The decision is not popular, given the chatter on the "MSB responders for change" Facebook page. Several noted problems including what they described as longer than usual response times for a call about an unconscious person and someone with heart trouble.

"I feel like we are abandoning our community," one responder wrote.

Along with Anchorage, other communities in Alaska that use full-time emergency departments include Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna, Juneau and Ketchikan.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com