All Politics Is Local: Or an EMS Labor Union and the Kerfuffle

There’s been a lot of discussion on EMS social media about the contract between the City of Austin and the Austin/Travis County EMS Employees’ Association (AKA: The Union) lapsing. I’m not a medic for ATCEMS, but I feel compelled to wade in as an Austin resident, a paramedic, a public sector employee, a friend of many of the medics in the system, and as someone who was a first responder within the system. I’m going to give this my best effort and will probably not gain any friends as a result. But that’s ok – as the old joke goes – lawyers have feelings.  Allegedly.

This is a system that’s had issues for a while. And this isn’t solely a greedy public employees’ union issue.  Nor is it an issue of terrible management. The truth be told, it’s a horrendous combination of lousy union leadership and equally inept city leadership.  The union leadership has sold its membership one scheme after another as the “one big fix” to the challenges of working in EMS.  I remember several years ago when there was entirely different leadership at the union, EMS management, and even city management.  A paramedic ran for the union presidency on a promise of replacing the current (at that time) 56 hour work week of 24 hours on and 48 hours off with a guaranteed 48 hour work week – for the same pay.  Needless to say, neither EMS nor city management were enamored with the idea of cutting hours for the same pay.  Then the union president raised the issue of “safety.”  That’s an issue that, once raised, can’t be recalled. At that point, the city hired a consulting firm to examine EMS scheduling and the determination was made that many of the stations were too busy to be on 24 hour schedules.  To this date, scheduling and station assignments remain one of the biggest challenges at ATCEMS. A variety of schedules have been tried and active fatigue management policies are now in place.  While the fatigue management policies are welcome and needed (especially after the death of a respected ATCEMS captain who fell asleep while driving), the reality is that all of the scheduling fixes fail to address the underlying problem – a busy EMS system that does not have sufficient staffing or crews, especially in the areas of highest call volume in the center of the city.

The call volume in central Austin also impacts other parts of the system.  Many of the ambulances from the other parts of Austin have to transport to hospitals in central/downtown Austin.  Once those trucks become available as they leave the hospital, they are assigned calls in central/downtown Austin.  The crews call this “getting sucked into the vortex.” Meanwhile, the more outlying areas of the city are without their ambulance – all because no one recognizes the 800 pound gorilla in the room – the central part of Austin with its socioeconomic demographics, the entertainment district in downtown, and two homeless shelters less than two blocks from the entertainment district.  The solution was, is, and remains additional EMS resources in central/downtown Austin.  No other solution is a solution.

And let’s talk about the outlying areas some. Pretty much since the EMS system was created in Austin, Austin has supplied paramedic-level transport for all of Travis County.  Each of the fire departments in Travis County (including Austin FD) have provided first responder services under the protocols and medical direction of ATCEMS. In THEORY, ATCEMS protocols allow for the “credentialing” of these fire departments’ advanced/intermediate EMTs and paramedics to function at their state certification level. The reality is that the credentialing process is very similar (and probably rightfully so) to the field training process that ATCEMS medics go through to be “credentialed” for independent practice.  In actuality, the process exists largely on paper. The process is too long and involved for many departments to commit an employee for this extended period.  And it serves ATCEMS to limit the number of providers above the EMT level.  As a result of this process, its lack of transparency and clear standards, and the underlying motives in limiting the number of advanced providers, ATCEMS has alienated many of the fire departments in the county.  Pflugerville was alienated to the point of creating its own fire-based EMS system and completely separating from ATCEMS.  Two other departments have their own medical direction now for paramedic-level first response.  This failure reflects right back on both ATCEMS leadership and ATCEMS union leadership.  In fact, one union president told Pflugerville that his job was to protect his members. Granted, it’s probably the truth, but at least be politic enough to couch it in terms of patient safety, patient care, and patient outcomes.

If management deals in good faith with employees, there’s little hue and cry for a union, much less civil service protections. Witness the number of Japanese auto plants in the US where workers have actively rejected unionization attempts by the United Auto Workers.  ATCEMS has had a history of employee discontent and morale issues.  I know paramedics from the early 1990s who complained about being assigned to a mandatory overtime shift at the busiest station in the system (and one of the busiest in the US) right after working that same station for the previous 24 hours. As the morale problems continued and several provider suicides occurred, Austin’s previous medical director was replaced by a new medical director who came in from the outside.  One of his first of many arrogant moves was to push for ATCEMS to hire EMTs because he believed that there are too many paramedics in EMS and he didn’t believe there was evidence to support advanced life support providers.  This mindset was that of a physician who seemed to define EMS success by cardiac arrest statistics alone. A new “Medic I” position was created where anyone with an EMT certification or higher would be eligible to apply.  After a period of 1-2 years as a “Medic I,” those with a paramedic certification would be eligible to promote to the “Medic II” position as a paramedic-level provider. Needless to say, this change increased the workload on system-credentialed paramedic providers and also turned off many experienced providers from applying to work for ATCEMS.

While ATCEMS has since replaced the medical director with a much more progressive and aggressive medical director from the Houston area, the Medic I/Medic II model is now virtually codified as a result of ATCEMS moving to civil service. As a result of the continued workplace discontent, the latest “solution” from the union was “civil service.” Civil service would provide for state laws (or a negotiated contract with the city) to govern employee relations including hiring, promotions, and discipline. It has also codified a management team and culture where, other than the department director and medical director, all promotions are from within the department.  And this is a department that is so insular that it still believes its own PR machine about how progressive it is.  In fact, until the mid 2000s, the ATCEMS patch still had “System of the Year 1985” on it.  While other EMS systems have added paralytics for intubation and multiple other drugs and interventions, the bureaucratic inertia of ATCEMS has turned the previous clinical excellence into just another large urban EMS system, albeit without the requirement to become a firefighter. And just like most fire departments where the IAFF rules the roost, the union was created as a result of management strife, but requires on continued strife to justify “this is why we need a union.”

And now the employees are without a contract.  And “this is why we need a union.”  And so it goes.

The Challenge of EMS Conferences

I attended EMS World Expo last week in Las Vegas and had a good time.  I had the opportunity to reconnect with several of my good friends in the Las Vegas emergency medicine world.  I got to see a bunch of people who I only see at these conferences and meet several people who I previously only knew through the Internet. And I ate like a king.  (If you know me away from the blog, you can easily find my Yelp reviews with some incredible food suggestions for Sin City.)  And being as it was Vegas, well, I had fun in Vegas.

But here’s the sad, but honest truth.  I learned very little.  I did come away with one huge new thing — apparently, there’s now an EZ-IO placement in the distal femur for pediatric patients.  But the rest of the presentations were pretty “ok.”  There’s not a lot of new information out there.  And sadly, in a presentation on recent research, a renowned EMS scholar presented information on fluid resuscitation in sepsis that is not only not current, but may even be contraindicated by more recent research.  Sadly, some of the best airway education was occurring in the exhibit hall practicing the SALAD technique with disciples of anesthesiologist and EMS airway physician Dr. Jim DuCanto.

I wasn’t going to gripe about this until seeing my friend and EMS airway ninja post some excellent education online regarding surgical airways and the need to rapidly move to a surgical airway. I asked myself why a presentation like this didn’t occur at a major EMS conference.  I came up with three reasons.

  1. Audience.  Truth be told, not everyone in EMS wants to learn the most current medicine.  There’s a large, loud contingent of folks who want to learn the bare minimum to maintain certification and/or pass the test. “Meets minimum standards” is a mantra in EMS.  And as we’ve all heard me gripe before, you can never go wrong in overestimating the number of people in EMS who are in it for the hero status as opposed to the medical professional status.  See also: EMS t-shirt sales.
  2. EMS celebrities. Truth be told as well, there are certain speakers on the EMS conference circuit who are known quantities.  They’re entertainers first and educators last.  They fill the seats and are like flypaper attracting the “meets minimum standards” crowd.  These people can speak on any topic, present dated or questionable information, and have limited expertise on the topic.  But because they’re funny and/or appeal to the lowest common denominator, EMS conferences continue to invite them as speakers.  Why?  Because they put butts in the seats.
  3. Timing. Most of these conferences put out calls for presentations almost a year before the conference commences. As such, the most current research and practice doesn’t always make it in time.

If you wonder why I spend so much time on EMS social media and blogs, I will close things out with a quote from Dr. Joe Lex, the intellectual godfather of #FOAM.

If you want to know how we practiced medicine 5 years ago, read a textbook.
If you want to know how we practiced medicine 2 years ago, read a journal.
If you want to know how we practice medicine now, go to a (good) conference.
If you want to know how we will practice medicine in the future, listen in the hallways and use FOAM.

And if you don’t know #FOAM, it’s likely you’re already a step behind the EMS education curve.

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