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Anchorage shuffles ambulance crews to give busiest paramedics some help

Devin Kelly

The Anchorage Fire Department is in the process of shifting more paramedics to the city’s busiest service areas at peak hours, as current staffing levels are resulting in overworked, “burned-out” medics, fire officials said.

Under the plan, introduced this week by Fire Chief John Fullenwider, the ambulance at the station just off the Seward Highway near 80th Avenue in South Anchorage will temporarily move up to a station near Tudor Road during the busiest hours of the day.

“The reason for that is we’re burning out our medics, abusing our medics” at the stations serving downtown and Midtown, Fullenwider told members of the Anchorage Assembly at a budget and finance committee meeting Wednesday.

He said about 75 percent of the department’s ambulance runs are concentrated north of International Airport Road, and Station 4, off Tudor a few blocks west of Lake Otis Parkway, was picked because statistics show it would be the "most advantageous place" for another medical unit.

In an interview, Fullenwider said he has heard complaints from overworked paramedics while visiting the stations. He also pointed to high attrition rates related to retirement, promotion or firefighters giving up their paramedic licenses voluntarily.

Right now, only 50 of the 54 paramedic positions in the department are filled, Fullenwider said.  

But he said there hasn't been an effect on emergency services, and staffing itself isn’t necessarily the problem. The big issue, he said, is spreading the workload evenly.  

“We have sufficient staffing,” Fullenwider said. “It’s just a matter of getting resources in the right place.”

The South Anchorage station, Station 12, received 2,048 medical calls in 2012, compared to the 4,127 calls fielded by Station 4, according to a study released by the city last November. Fullenwider said ambulances from the Jewel Lake Road station and the Huffman Road station will help fill the gap when the Station 12 ambulance moves uptown during peak hours.  

The president of the Anchorage firefighters union, Mike Stumbaugh, disagreed with the chief about adequate staffing.

“In all reality, we just need to hire more people,” Stumbaugh said. He also called the decision to move the Station 12 ambulance a “disservice to entire South Anchorage.”

Assembly member Amy Demboski, who represents Chugiak-Eagle River, said she’s also concerned about staffing levels, and she's trying to shore up funding for paramedics through the Assembly’s own budget.

She plans to introduce a proposal at next week’s Assembly meeting that would reallocate about $448,700 from the body’s general fund to pay for six new paramedic positions.That money was originally dedicated to a special election for a referendum on a municipal labor law -- an election the state has since offered to undertake, Demboski said.

Fullenwider said Demboski's proposal, which would draw on paramedics from other departments in Alaska, would move the hiring process along much more quickly and supplement a fire academy scheduled to start March 1.

He also said the department is formalizing an in-house paramedic training for AFD firefighters, which could yield two to three more paramedic candidates a year.