Let’s All Call Out Sick New Year’s Eve! That’ll Show ’em.

The EMS system in our nation’s capital kicked off 2013 with more bad headlines.  This is from EMS1:

A D.C. man died while waiting for an ambulance amidst a city-wide staff shortage when more than 100 firefighters called in sick on New Year’s Eve.

While the union president denied that the call-out was organized, to claim that this was a coincidence does not pass the sniff test.  I wonder how many of the 100 people were firefighters, and how many were separate-but-equal paramedics.  The article states that 11 ambulances went out of service, and only describes adverse affects on EMS calls.  I wonder if  any fire trucks were placed out of service becasue of the staffing shortage, and if not why.  Perhaps someone familiar with the situation can enlighten me about that.

A man in cardiac arrest died after he waited for an ambulance for 40 minutes. A stabbing victim had to be transported in a fire truck because no ambulances were readily available.

When we sign up for EMS work we sign up for an obligation to the community we serve.  If this was an attempt to screw management, patients got screwed even more. 

Internal D.C. Fire Department documents say crews were on the go nonstop trying to keep up with the constant calls.

I’m sure the people who showed up to work appreciated that. 

Chief Ellerbe told the TV station that the large number of sick calls could be due to firefighters taking advantage of their minor illness program, allowing them to call out sick three times a year without going to a clinic.

I immagine that loophole will be closed before the end of 2013, to the detriment of everyone who comes to work when they are supposed to. You don’t want people to come to work when they are sick, and changing the rules to prevent people from calling out is a band-aid.  Making someone with a 24-hour stomach bug leave their house to see a doctor is a pain in the ass (literally), and a waste of everyone’s time & money.

What Chief Ellerbe, and managers of other dysfunctional organizations don’t understand is that high sick-time usage is a symptom of a bigger problem.  Art Hsieh sums it up well in his EMS 1 column:

The lack of corps d’esprit should be telling. I mean, why support your organization when it doesn’t support you?

It’s easy to fall into that mindset. Of course, professionals would put that aside and fight the good fight, maintaining whatever services to community they can.

I believe that if you are scheduled to work a shift in EMS, unless you are physically or mentally unable to perform, or have a family member who needs to be cared for, you have an obligation to show up.  Not fulfilling that obligation hurts the community and coworkers waiting for relief.

I’ve written before that if you want to engage in civil disobedience at a dysfunctional service, refusing to work overtime will be much more effective that mass sick call-outs.  While we have an obligation to show up for our scheduled shifts, I do not believe it is the responsibility of street-level providers to compensate for chronic staffing shortages by being forced to work extra.  Legitimate arguments about provider fatigue play better with the media too.

I feel bad for the excellent paramedics in DC who work in a broken system, and for the people who showed up to work New Year’s Eve.  For people trying to make EMS a respected profession, their coworkers who called out sick that night set us back.   










For those of us trying to make EMS a respectable profession, this is a huge set back.


  1. Good points Bob – we will be talking about this on the podcast Sunday – hope you can make it.


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