WINDER - A sick paramedic may mean longer ambulance response times with new rules that limit overtime in the department, Barrow County's fire chief said.
Previously, sick or vacationing firefighter/paramedics were replaced with others working overtime hours so a fire station was always staffed with four people - two for a fire truck and two for an ambulance, Fire Chief Mitch Kitchens said.
But with the department spending $275,000 for overtime last year and requesting an additional $200,000 this year, that staffing model could change with illness or vacation.
Kitchens said if more than one person is absent from one of the county's six fire stations on a particular day, that person will no longer be replaced with an overtime worker. That means fire stations could operate with as few as two people. One firefighter/paramedic is designated a floater each shift so if only one person is out, all fire stations would still be fully staffed.
The worst-case scenario, Kitchens said, is that the county could be down a medical unit.
"The response time for an ambulance may increase," he said. "I don't think people should be worried. We have a plan in place to cover the conditions and sometimes we have it now, a delayed response."
That plan is to allow the paramedics at a short-staffed station to use their best judgment about whether they should take an ambulance or fire truck to a scene, Kitchens said. Additionally, the chief said he would keep a medical unit outside his office and would be prepared to go to a call as needed.
If each of the county's medical units is out on another call, Kitchens said, people would experience the same delayed response that they would be faced with if one ambulance was out of commission.
But Gail Rysinski, a county resident who spoke against the overtime decision at a Board of Commissioner's meeting where a new budget requiring the changes was passed Tuesday, said in matters that require medical attention, a minute could be the difference between life and death.
"It's appalling, what's going on here," she said. "They're cutting services in the most sensitive and delicate areas. ... Time is of the essence. A minute is everything."
County commissioners voted Tuesday to raise the county's millage rate and roll the fire tax in with the regular millage, bringing the millage rate to 9.609 mills. Kitchens said the decision to include the fire tax in with other taxes would not hinder the department's operations.
And even though he wishes the department had access to more money, Kitchens said the changes will not adversely affect the department.
"I'm not happy about it," Kitchens said. "Every fire chief in the nation would love to have an unlimited budget. But we'll still provide the services we provide. We had a big budget with a lot of overtime. We're going to reduce overtime."
County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison said the county was not cutting any fire services and the fact that a request to hire three more firefighter/paramedics was denied would not hurt the department because no new fire station was set to open. Those additional firefighters would have floated from station to station as needed.
Bill Healan, a Winder attorney who said he has suffered from both a heart attack and a stroke, credited paramedics with saving his life after the stroke when they quickly got him to the hospital. But he said the potential for staffing shortages makes him worry that not every life that is savable will actually be saved.
"They may very well be able to get to me, but at some point, someone's going to be the odd man out," Healan said. "I wouldn't want to be that person. ... I wouldn't want to be the person they didn't have an ambulance for."
Peggy Chaney, a local resident opposed to the overtime cuts, said she worried about what would happen if firefighter/paramedics at understaffed stations were pulled in more than one direction.
"Every citizen in Barrow County is now in jeopardy," she said.
Ambulance set to come to Winder
Plans to move an ambulance into Winder should come to fruition this weekend, Barrow County Fire Department spokesman Lt. Scott Dakin said.
Dakin said he expected a unit from the Holsenbeck station to move into an apartment at the old Duckhead building Saturday and be operational Monday.
The unit was supposed to move in earlier, but Winder City Clerk Jane Skelton said there were some problems with power and new lines needed to be added. Dakin said all the furniture had not been delivered.
The decision to house the ambulance in Winder was made in March after some residents complained about longer response times for the city. The fact that the Holsenbeck station will be torn down and rebuilt because the septic tank at the station had degraded and sewage was leaking back into the building made a good opportunity to locate a unit in Winder. Mold had also been found in the building and the Holsenbeck station had poor air quality.
Another fire station, near the old County Line school, will be built in about two years, bringing a permanent ambulance presence to the city.