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    Paramedic shortage slows response times

    Sunstar EMS has missed its goals for months, but says the lag isn't a danger to patients.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 9, 2003

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Paramedics from the Clearwater Fire Department direct an ambulance to pull over to their rescue vehicle at the scene of a traffic accident on Belcher Road.
    Paramedic Stephen Glatstein was one of a parade of 18 job applicants at the county's Sunstar Emergency Medical Service on Thursday.

    And not a moment too soon.

    A shortage of paramedics is the key reason ambulances have been taking too long to arrive at medical emergencies, say managers for American Medical Response, the company that runs Sunstar under a $21-million-a-year contract with the county.

    Last month, county officials said AMR had failed to meet its response time target for December for emergency and nonemergency calls. It also failed to meet nonemergency goals in November.

    Last week, the news got worse. AMR also failed to meet emergency and nonemergency goals in January and February, county officials said.

    AMR managers say they've made a series of changes to speed up and that so far this month, the company has met its goals each day.

    "We have fixed some things in March that are really pretty exciting," said Bob Siler, AMR's vice president of operations for west Florida.

    Both sides say the problems aren't severe enough to endanger patients. But the shortage has put more stress on AMR's paramedics -- as well as on local fire and rescue companies.

    Residents are at risk if the lagging times aren't fixed, one local fire chief said. That's because when an AMR ambulance doesn't arrive quickly enough, a fire company's rescue truck takes the patient to the hospital.

    That's safer for the patient, but it also takes a fire district crew out of service, said Dan Graves, Seminole fire chief.

    Last year, Graves said, Seminole fire crews transported 11 patients instead of waiting on AMR. This year, they've transported 21.

    Chuck Kearns, the county's director of EMS and Fire Administration, is concerned as well.

    Still, Kearns said he was "hopeful that they've turned the corner."

    Residents need to look at AMR's total performance, Kearns said. AMR has just barely missed its goals each month, he said. And, while Seminole has transported 21 patients this year, AMR transported 6,472 emergency patients in January alone.

    Because of the shortage of paramedics, duties here and elsewhere at AMR have changed. The company has shifted the duties of several supervisors, who also are paramedics, to put them out on the road, Siler said. The company also has asked other crews to sign up for overtime shifts and signed up more part-time staffers.

    The company is offering $3,000 signing bonuses and hopes to hire 20 paramedics and 20 emergency medical technicians.

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