With one department under Manatee County Public Safety having decided to unionize, another having taken steps in that direction and two more discussing the possibility, citizens might want to start taking a closer look at how these essential services are being managed and why there are so many disgruntled employees within their ranks. When they do, they will likely find a lot of head-scratching red flags, along with what might be a silver-bullet solution.
The grievances of the Manatee County Sheriff's Department are well documented, as it seems each year Sheriff Brad Steube has had to go hat in hand before the Manatee County Commission asking for money to lift pay freezes, hire needed deputies, buy patrol cars or try to compete with surrounding counties for personnel. Steube has even offered to separate the millage imposed for his department and answer to taxpayers himself when it needs to be raised to keep pace with an ever-growing county.
However, as tough as the Sheriff may well have had it in recent years, the fact remains that as an elected official (and therefore not under the thumb of the county administrator) of a department that, for the most part, taxpayers have remained sympathetic too, he's at least been able to get the BOCC to throw something in that hat on most occasions. Other departments, particularly Emergency Medical Services, have not been so lucky.
In more than one BOCC meeting/workshop, EMS employees showed up with even worse hardships to detail, but were turned away so consistently that the department eventually decided that they would need to unionize if they were to ever get a fair shake (negotiations for a contract are ongoing).
Emergency Control Center employees have reportedly officially received interest cards – the first step in the unionization process – while EMS sources say that both animal services and marine rescue employees have approached them about the possibility of rolling into their unionization, while claiming widespread interest among employees. We should be asking why there is so much dissension in the ranks of departments that fall under the public safety director.
As hard as it is to believe, EMS employees are some of the lowest paid in the county. Despite the level of training needed, the incredibly high stress of the job and the immense importance of their performance – literally life or death every single day – they're typically some of the lowest paid employees in the county, often ranking right around low-level landfill and maintenance employees (click here to see a PDF showing each county employee's hourly and annual earnings).
Along with the poor pay, come what are quite possibly the worst shifts of any department. Despite working alongside firefighters, they typically make about 30 percent less in comparable positions, so it is no surprise that the best and brightest often make the jump. Now, I'm not diminishing the role of any first responder, but I am a pragmatist and statistically, I am more likely to need an EMS employee's services than a fireman's or a deputy's (especially in a life or death instance), and I wouldn't hesitate to tell you that of all public safety employees, I want the smartest kids in the class to end up in emergency services, where there is a high probability that either myself or one of my loved ones will someday rely on their expertise in order to remain above ground.
The cream of the crop will always gravitate toward the best compensated positions and EMS doesn't fit the bill by a long shot. Instead, we seem to be running on a churn 'em and burn 'em philosophy that is more concerned with keeping bottom line costs low than with making sure that the public are getting a level of service commensurate with their considerable investment.
The high level of employee dissatisfaction has led to chronic understaffing, too many technicians working extra shifts without enough sleep and not enough buses in motion to cover our sprawling county and the additional development that is endlessly popping up at all far-flung corners. As we lose experienced and talented personnel to other municipalities and career fields, that also means that less experienced employees are promoted more rapidly.
Like too many county departments, EMS seems to have fallen victim to an administrative philosophy that favors extreme growth without proper impact fees to cover the true cost of the additional services, along with no will whatsoever to raise taxes in order to make up the difference. Instead, a few dozen administrators are paid huge salaries and benefits on the public dime, chiefly it would seem, for their proven willingness to crack the whip on the employees who actually deliver those services, while making sure that they remain cheap at all costs.
While it shouldn't be a surprise that employees who are treated that way are falling over themselves to set up union representation, it should still be something citizens are very concerned about. Why don't we get rid of the county's administration of the department altogether and roll EMS into the well-funded fire districts that they already have a working relationship with? Charged with the results of both departments, I suspect that fire chiefs – or better yet a single executive in charge of fire and EMS – would make sure that the love gets spread around a little bit and that as much is being done to show our appreciation to the dedication of EMS employees, as it is currently for deputies and firemen.
I don't think that many citizens in the midst of a heart attack would want a cut rate ambulance crew, some of whom have been on shift for 40-plus hours, and are being led by an inexperienced medic who was promoted out of necessity, to be answering that call. Once you've gone 19 hours without sleep, it is the equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level of .05, while going 24 hours produces the equivalent of a blood alcohol level of .10. We wouldn't dream of letting first responders toss a few back while on an 8-hour shift, yet we embrace practices that ultimately produce the same dangers for ambulance drivers, as well those administering treatment to the patients. In fact, we do more to make sure that truck drivers are adequately rested.
Study after study shows that sleep deprivation is the most dangerous enemy of first responders. From there, it filters down to those being treated, as fatigue is the leading cause of medical errors in the field. Dismal pay and bad work conditions lead to staffing shortfalls, which lead to more double shifts and so on, not to mention the fact that in order to make ends meet, most techs have to pull shifts for other agencies or private ambulance services on their off days, instead of catching up on their rest as is often supposed by the schedule.
As the county continues to expand, approving one far flung development after another, it must keep pace with the necessary public safety resources to service all of its developed areas. Otherwise, the rest of us are continuing to subsidize that growth by way of declining services. There simply is no way to avoid the additional costs of growth, from patrol cars, ambulances and even new substations, to deputies, dispatchers and paramedics. Going cheap is in fact a sort of tax – the kind you might end up paying for with your life.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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