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Jewell defines WEMA concerns line by line

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 By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post 

WEMA Stations were short-staffed a few days ago, but no stations were ever closed, according to Wilson County Emergency Management Agency Director John Jewell.

Jewell was emphatic when he confirmed that the agency was short on personnel during a shift earlier this week, but said the reports of stations closing were “horribly erroneous.”

Although the stations in question were short-staffed at the beginning of the day shift, which starts at 7:30 a.m., Jewell said the station returned to full staff by 10 a.m. with part-time employees.

The recent concern over the staffing of WEMA stations was the main topic of interest at Tuesday evening’s EMA Committee meeting.

“There has been a lot of interest into how we operate recently,” Jewell said. “So our goal here tonight is to explain where we are, how we got there and where we are going.”

Jewell targeted the agency’s main fiscal concerns for members of the panel, most of which were personnel in nature.

This year’s budget is projected to be nearly $80,000 short, but much of that could be covered by reappropriating funds from other budget lines, such as fuel, which is projected to have a $24,000 surplus, and phone line communication, which can provide $11,000 for other uses.

Agency officials expressed the most concern with part-time employee pay, overtime pay and regular full-time salaries and wages. They are also concerned with medical supply costs, another budget line item that does not relate to personnel.

The 2009-2010 fiscal year budget is 70.8 percent elapsed based on time, but many of these categories surpass that percentage, some by as much as 15 percent.

Some of the budget concerns are as follows: (goal -- 70.8 percent or lower)

• Temporary personnel -- 83.6 percent expended

• Overtime pay -- 74.8 percent expended

• Full-time salaries and wages -- 72.8 percent expended

• Medical supplies -- 85.5 percent expended

Much of the recent short-staffing issues have to do with unexpected employee absences.

Jewell said the WEMA averages 4.33 absences per shift countywide. That figure is equivalent to one full station, given that four employees are scheduled to a station per shift. But the absences are spread all over the county, not contained to just one station.

But that number is just an average, as Jewell pointed out. Some days, only one or two may be absent, while on other days, that number could be six or eight.

Absences are made up of sick time, vacation, training, administrative leave, and disability leave to name a few.

Plan to cope with fiscal strain

“The real fix,” as Jewell called it, is the fact that it takes 11 employees to keep 9 positions in a station filled.

To alleviate this problem and to make sure stations will not continue to be short-staffed, he presented EMA panel members with a visionary solution that would include hiring 19 employees that would be used to fill gaps in stations countywide.

That figure was calculated by applying the 11-for-9 ratio to the agency’s total necessary staff per shift, multiplied by 3 shifts.

The 19 desired employees averages out to about six per shift, which would help cover the days when absences are higher than four.

But that solution would come at a price, and a hefty one at that, of $997,401 annually.

He bolstered his case by citing that WEMA’s budget is a little more than $7 million, while the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department budget tops $14 million.

The extra $1 million would create an “ideal” situation for the agency, Jewell said.

But until personnel increases, Jewell presented a four-point plan for dealing with future personnel issues until the problems are resolved:

• Battalion Commanders use certified volunteers (currently nine certified by the state)

• Short-staff personnel at lower volume stations (not closing stations)

• Use private ambulance services (Pro Med)

• Close lowest volume station(s) (as a last resort)

Jewell said he was not comfortable with closing stations. “I would hope we don’t get there.”

Medical supplies increasing 8-10 percent

Even with all the personnel issues that are causing WEMA’s bottom line to suffer, medical supplies are increasing in price, and it’s becoming harder to stock emergency vehicles with all the life-saving tools and medications necessary for emergency situations.

One item that stands out to the EMTs and paramedics that is becoming in short supply are called EZ-IO needles. The needles are relatively new to the emergency field and are expensive to boot.

The needles are made to penetrate a patient’s bone to deliver medication or fluids directly into the bone marrow. They are especially useful for patients who are suffering cardiac arrest or other low blood pressure situations that make finding veins difficult. They are also helpful for treating young children.

The problem is they cost $100 per needle, and since December 2008, WEMA has spent $12,000 on the EZ-IO needles alone. And for the past two months, emergency personnel have been raiding supplies at stations across the county because Jewell said they can’t afford to buy more right now.

According to Assistant EMS Director Doug McQuarry, supplies across the board are jumping 8 to 10 percent, but some items are spiking as much as 50 percent between quotes and purchase just a few days later.

And other unknown factors, such as Medicare and TennCare announcing they will soon be cutting payouts to providers will directly cut into WEMA’s pockets.

It all adds to the growing concerns of an agency trying its best to be ready when the worst happens.

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at zowensby@wilsonpost.com.

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