This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.
30 minutes. This is the time it takes for paramedics from the Kansas City Fire Department to sterilize an ambulance after responding to a COVID-19 emergency. As cases skyrocketed in Kansas City last year, those minutes have started to add up.
From March 2020 to March 2021, KCFD saw a 22% increase in overtime from the same range the year before – to the tune of $ 13 million, according to a Beacon analysis of public payroll records. In 2019, overtime totaled $ 10 million.
The increase in overtime, combined with an already insufficient paramedical unit, has pushed an overloaded system to its limits.
While vaccinations have offered a respite, paramedics face the burnout of the past year. Mental health effects are difficult to predict – and are expected to persist for some time.
Adam Prentice, paramedic at KCFD, is one of five fire service workers who earned more than half of their gross pay from overtime in 2020. Although overtime is common for paramedics in Anytime, 2020 presented unique challenges, including time to sterilize equipment and an increase in emergency calls.
At the onset of the pandemic, Prentice said paramedics were to be quarantined for an extended period if they responded to a case of COVID-19 because rapid tests were not yet available. This meant that it was up to workers who weren’t in quarantine to fill empty shifts.
“You are racking up people’s calls twice, three times what they normally are, and you can’t keep up,” he said.
Tim Dupin is the union president of IAFF Local 42, which represents fire department employees in the greater Kansas City area. He said that at one point, out of 1,356 KCFD employees, 244 were in quarantine at the same time.
While $ 13 million is a big figure, it’s not uncommon for fire departments to rack up heavy overtime costs, KCFD deputy director Richard Gist said. There is always a need for skilled people in ambulances, which means that whenever someone takes a vacation or a sick day, the ministry will have to pay overtime to their replacement.
During the pandemic, the KCFD would hire fire brigade chiefs with medical licenses to assist with calls, whose overtime costs more than other employees.
The main difference this year has been dealing with a highly transmissible virus.
“The amount of stress doing your job was drastically different,” Gist said. “At that time, every patient we met was someone who could make you sick, before we had any vaccines. And we didn’t even know then how it could be transmitted.
In the past year, three KCFD employees have died from COVID-19, including a paramedic. Their deaths had an impact on their fellow first responders. Burnout has become a common experience, and as COVID-19 cases remain high in Missouri, paramedics remain stretched.
“Overtime is returning to a normal level, but we are still responding to many COVID calls,” Dupin said. “Missouri is still very rich in COVID-positive people, especially with the new variant. “
A statewide problem
A shortage of paramedics existed before the pandemic. It can be difficult to attract people to such a demanding job, and applications for the KCFD have declined over the past two years, Dupin said.
To get certified, people must complete two years of college education. From there, they apply for a position, undergo academic training and are assigned to a department. During the early years, Prentice said, most of their income was spent on paying for their education.
“You come out of school earning the same amount as at Walmart,” he said. “As a new graduate, you are thrown to the wolves. Financially, sometimes it’s not worth it.
Prentice said many paramedics have to work long overtime hours to earn a living wage in their early years, or to work a second job.
The number of licensed paramedics in Missouri has not increased in the past five years, according to a 2020 Missouri Emergency Medical Services Association survey. Respondents said pay and benefits were the most important factor when looking for a job – and the number one reason for leaving a position.
Dupin said the most recent bargaining deal with the city, which includes a higher base salary for paramedic firefighters, should help attract more employees to Kansas City. KCFD is now accepting applications, starting at $ 67,876 per year. The maximum possible salary is $ 85,920 after eight years.
He hopes intensive recruiting will lead to an increase in the number of applicants this fall and establish Kansas City as the “destination employer” for paramedic firefighters across the country.
“We’ve set the bar in Kansas City for salaries and benefits for paramedics,” Dupin said. “So we hope that some of the departments in metropolitan areas that have the same difficulty attracting good candidates will see how much of an advantage we have gained by doing this. “
Hours away from the family
When Prentice feels the stress of his job, spending time with his wife and children keeps him grounded. However, when COVID-19 calls became routine, it reduced her family time.
At one point, he isolated himself in a separate part of the house to keep them safe. Some paramedics have temporarily stayed in hotels.
“We have a daughter who gets sick often and we were concerned that her immune system could not fight it,” said Prentice.
Despite the precautions, Prentice’s entire family contracted COVID-19. Children have a runny nose. Prentice had to go to the emergency room.
He had to take about a month off work, and although he is now healthy and back to work, interacting with people who don’t take the pandemic seriously can be frustrating. Only 39% of Missourians were fully vaccinated as of July 7.
“It’s really hard when we go on the calls and these guys don’t believe me” about COVID-19, Prentice said. “They think I’m some kind of government conspiracy. I assure you this is the real deal.
Gist said responders develop coping mechanisms on a daily basis throughout their careers, but these strategies have been tested by the duration and intensity of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The things we invent on the fly allow us to spend the night, but maybe not the week,” he said. Helping first responders develop and maintain their resilience can help alleviate some of the mental effects of their jobs.
IAFF Local 42 offers a behavioral health program, called 42 Cares, designed to help workers deal with stress and other mental health issues. Dupin said the program, which has a full-time behavioral health specialist on staff, has been increasingly used by union members since the start of the pandemic.
So far, they have been able to vaccinate nearly 80% of the Kansas City Fire Department staff, which helps alleviate safety concerns, Dupin said.
Prentice said tackling the mental health ramifications of the pandemic will be an ongoing challenge.
“As to what we can do, I don’t know,” he said. “KCFD has great outreach programs, but a lot of people don’t like to talk about their feelings and stuff. “
Cultivating hope for the future and a return to normalcy is essential, Gist said.
“You want to see a light at the end of the tunnel and be sure it’s not a train coming towards you.”