By Carol Vaughn
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors this week discussed strategies to retain emergency medical services employees after the county has spent money training them.
The county’s $69 million fiscal year 2021 budget, as proposed, includes money for the first of two years of targeted salary increases for those employees, at a price tag of around $215,000.
The first year of salary increases would apply to those who have achieved the fire medic level or higher, according to Accomack County Chief Human Resources Officer Kathy Carmody, who clarified the proposal in a follow-up phone call. By the second year, the recruits in training now would qualify for the raise, along with those who qualified the first year.
“It all falls back on finding people to hire as recruits, and to keep those people working” for the county, Supervisor Robert Crockett said.
The county spends around $10,000 each to train paramedics, a process that takes two years.
It takes around nine months to get a recruit trained to the point where he or she can fill a spot on the schedule, according to Public Safety Director Charles R. Pruitt.
The county has agreements with public safety employees to work for a certain period in order to have their training costs forgiven, Carmody said.
The county has 44 agreements on file for 25 employees — some have multiple agreements.
Still, after recruits are trained, they too often leave for better paying jobs or a better schedule at fire and rescue departments in Wallops, Chincoteague, and Maryland.
“We are their training program,” said Supervisor Donald L. Hart Jr.
Since 2014, 39 public safety employees have resigned — including seven resignations last year — and seven have retired, according to a presentation by Public Safety Director Charles R. Pruitt.
Of 70 employees, 47 have fewer than five years of experience — and almost half have fewer than two years.
In comparison, 30% of employees in 2014 had more than 10 years’ experience, and only 41% had fewer than five years.
Other than pay, factors that could improve retention include being able to hire more “backfill” employees, which would provide a cushion for when an employee is injured and enable employees more easily to take time off; and to be able to offer a 72-hour work schedule, rather than the current 24 hours on and 48 hours off schedule, Carmody said.
Accomack will soon graduate its first group of recruits with advanced certifications, after having the program for 18 months.
The number of paid fire medics in the county has risen as the number of volunteers available to respond to calls has dropped.
The Accomack County Department of Public Safety staff now totals 70 — including 45 fire medics, six captains, three batallion chiefs, 13 part-time employees, one deputy emergency management coordinator, one administrative analyst, and a director. There are 22 paramedics on staff — 16 full time and six part time, Pruitt said.
“We strive every day to have a minimum of three” on duty, he said, noting it takes five or six paramedics per shift to cover the county’s Sprint vehicles and multiple ambulance calls, or multiple victims in a single incident.
Pruitt described scheduling staff to provide adequate coverage countywide as being “like a chess game.”
“I hate to even mention the word consolidation…We have to face the facts, if we are having as much trouble as we do,” Supervisor Ron Wolff said.
There are 14 volunteer departments in Accomack County.
Pruitt said Accomack “is no different than anywhere else in the country” in terms of facing problems with fewer volunteers to answer emergency calls.
Around 90% of emergency medical services calls are answered by paid medics, Pruitt said.
“It’s not going to get any better,” he said, predicting more will need to be hired in the future.
Barry Outten, fire chief at Greenbackville Vol. Fire Department, said the department spent over $24,000 of its own money in 2018 and over $26,000 last year to staff the station, even though the county had approved having county staff stationed there during the day.
“It’s not working out very well. … I’m struggling to get somebody in there to staff the station, because it’s all about providing the service we are supposed to provide for the taxpayers,” he said, adding, “We need 24-hour staffing — there’s no ifs, ands, or buts.”
In other action, the board of supervisors approved giving new treasurer James Lilliston an additional $6,138 in his department budget for fiscal year 2021.
Lilliston requested the money to pay for postage and training.
“I think we should do everything we can this year to support him,” said Hart.
Crockett also spoke in favor of adding the amount.
“He is committed to increase the tax collections, so we need to support him,” Crockett said.
The board also reduced from $81,398 to $24,765 the additional amount set aside for Eastern Shore Public Library to operate the new library in Parksley for seven months next year. The library is under construction.
On Crockett’s recommendation, the board also added $3,000 to the library budget for a pilot project on Tangier.
The board took out of the budget $76,000 for improvements to the Hammocks boat ramp.
Additionally, the board approved adding $14,884 to the Clerk of Circuit Court’s budget to make a part-time position full time, and $37,007 for a Sheriff’s deputy responsible for security at the Clerk’s Office. The officer also patrols the county administration building and the environmental services building, Accomack County Administrator Michael Mason said.
With a decision hanging in the balance about whether to budget next year for a new public safety communications system, board members said they likely will vote at the next regular meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 5 p.m., to set a public hearing date.
The public safety system, if implemented on a regional basis, will cost Accomack County $4.5 million and will trigger a one cent real estate tax increase to pay for debt service next year.
Two members each from the Accomack and Northampton Board of Supervisors were scheduled to meet this week about funding a regional communications system.