Dawson County officials took a step forward last night in the battle over emergency medical responder pay, raising the base pay of county paramedics to over $18 per hour and enacting a set of new policies meant to improve recruitment and retention.
At the suggestion of Dawson County Fire Chief and EMA Director Danny Thompson, the Dawson County Board of Commissioners approved a 15% pay raise for local paramedics at their meeting on Thursday night, along with an additional $2-per-hour stipend for paramedics riding the county’s med unit and a $20,000 increase to the county’s EMS training budget.
This flurry of action on paramedic pay comes just weeks after Thompson appeared before the board in early April and explained why the county lost three experienced paramedics in a short time to neighboring counties with higher paramedic salaries.
"It's about taking care of the men and women, it's about taking care of the employees," Thompson said to the board on Thursday. "Instead of Dawson County being the training ground and other counties stealing our employees after we've trained them, let's start stealing some of theirs."
With the 15% raise, the starting salary for a Dawson County paramedic has been raised from $16.27 per hour to $18.71, bringing the salary range closer to pay rates in surrounding counties.
Thompson also recommended paying paramedics who ride the county’s ambulances an extra $2 per hour while they are out responding to calls with their unit. Thompson previously said that about four employees per day would be eligible for the extra pay, costing the county an additional $75,500 per year.
"My paramedics assigned to the med unit day in and day out make more life and death decisions than I do in a week ... probably in a month," Thompson said. "At the end of the day, paramedics are the backbone of our organization."
At the meeting in early April, Thompson suggested adding $15,000 to the department’s EMS training budget to offer $5,000 educational incentives for paramedic candidates. But upon the suggestion of Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond, that total was raised to $20,000 on Thursday.
"I would propose to you that's probably a little low and we should maybe make that $20,000,” Thurmond said. “Because I do feel like that paying the way for those people to become paramedics is the way for us to maintain staff level to fill those positions."
Thurmond and Thompson agreed providing educational incentives would enable the county to take firefighter/EMTs already employed by Dawson County and send them to paramedic schools on the county’s dime, while locking the employee into a two-year contract with the county.
Currently, the county has 18 paramedics and about 12 more supervisor-level employees that are qualified as paramedics, Thompson said. On the other hand, Dawson County has 13 unfilled positions for full-time and part-time paramedics.
County officials said those open positions could be filled with employees that the county already has a relationship with, and with a two-year contract, candidates might stop seeing Dawson County as only a training ground but as a place to start a long career.
Prior to the board’s unanimous 3-0 vote, with District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines absent, Thurmond recommended a more conservative option, suggesting that the county could raise base paramedic salaries by only 10% and approve the $20,000 education incentive while doing more intense research into the pay and benefits of neighboring counties.
But the suggestion was quickly shot down by District 3 Commissioner Tim Satterfield who said that over the past few weeks they had learned that several other county paramedics were considering leaving the area for pay raises, and a 10% raise would be insulting to their employees.
"To give a $1.27 raise, those three probably will leave tomorrow, I mean, that's just a slap in their face," Satterfield said. "We've got fast food places down here ... They're paying $16 something an hour and we don't want to pay our EMTs that much so we're going to pay our paramedics the same thing they'd go flip a hamburger for."
Satterfield said that getting as close to the $19 per hour salary benchmark would ensure that local paramedics knew that their time, training and sacrifices meant something to the county they serve.
"We've got to get competitive, these kids aren't looking at the insurance ... but they are looking at how much they make an hour and how many hours they put in to get the certification," he said. "$19 an hour for 18 months of training, what they've got to do and what they go through."
Upon Thurmond and Thompson’s suggestions, the board also approved a measure that will allow the county to develop a step raise plan, which will allow applicants with years of experience at other fire departments to come to Dawson County at a higher rate of pay. Something that Dawson County has reportedly never done in the past.
"That gives us some teeth to be able to hopefully retain these people," Thompson said. "I think that puts us competitive, it puts us middle of the road."