Austin EMS, fire dealing with staffing shortages

Austin Fire and EMS have lost a significant amount of workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic and February’s winter storm.

Both public safety associations said current staff are burnt out from working mandatory overtime to make up for the loss in personnel.

"So it’s definitely very bad right now," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.

Xie said ambulances have been shut down, mental health response cut and medics forced to work overtime and put vacations on hold. "Our staffing has been worse than I’ve ever seen it before. Right now, we’re at 18 percent understaffed, which is huge," Xie said.

Staffing shortages worsened as calls for EMS spiked in the last year and a half. "The pandemic has caused a lot of folks in healthcare to leave health care altogether. The winter storm was very brutal for folks, also there are many EMS agencies across the state that are paying much better than we are," said Xie.

Xie said some medics left to work in hospitals where they can receive significant bonuses per shift. Others resigned or transferred after they were forced to work extra hours without incentives to do so.

"Right now, our response times are still very good, but I am concerned that, if we do not do something to increase retention of our staff, that we are definitely going to come into some serious problems," Xie said.

Xie said several ambulances were pulled from other areas of the city Thursday morning in order to respond to a high-priority call in South Austin. "We can’t both have active attack response and also make sure that we’re serving the rest of the city at the same level," said Xie.

The Austin Fire Department also saw staffing shortages worsen during the pandemic. Currently, the department is about 150 firefights short, said Austin Firefighter Association President Bob Nicks.

"Firefighters can only burn the candle at both ends for so long and then you start having mental issues, you have start having family issues and then, eventually, you start having service issues, but that’s the last thing that’ll happen," Nicks said.

Nicks said AFD’s downtown staffing hasn’t increased  since the mid 70s, even though Austin’s population has tripled in that time. Any gains made over the years were lost during the pandemic, and overtime shifts are being mandated to keep up response times.

"We have very few people signing up now because they’re just so tired of all the work they’ve done. They’ve just had enough," said Nicks. 

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