To beef up South Burlington’s overtaxed emergency medical staff, the city council has voted to give some federal pandemic funds to train more local paramedics.

New fire chief Steve Locke, who succeeded Terry Francis after a brisk rearrangement of leadership a couple months ago, explained the dire need to fill departmental gaps at a meeting Monday, highlighting how this allocation would be a needed investment in retaining staff.

“That transition from being a regular EMT who can do some things to a paramedic level education is really important to our staff and important to our community. It’s difficult to recruit paramedics,” he said, adding that the city has not “invested in our own members since 2010 when we trained the first group of paramedics.”

With little discussion other than a few questions and words of support, the city councilors voted to grant Locke’s request for $12,062 from a surplus fund accrued at the end of the fiscal year.

With the money, he hopes to enroll three of the department’s EMTs in a Williston-based training program to reach paramedic licensure. The cost to attend is $25,000 per student with an additional $6,500 in overtime to backfill the shift while the employee attends training, covered by a combination of state grants — $42,438 for two of the three qualifying staff — $40,000 from the city’s paramedic fund and the city’s one-time allocation of surplus funds.

In a city council memo, Locke noted that since 2010 the department has relied on hiring already trained paramedics rather than on investing in current staff, but that that model is “no longer sustainable, nor in alignment with professional development best practices.”

All the department firefighters save the chief are advanced EMTs and seven are licensed paramedics. But with the department’s low numbers, Locke said he wants to get to a “sweet spot” of having between 7-10 paramedics on staff.

Between a staffer on injury leave and a few parental leaves, current staff numbers are around 24 with five spots unfilled. With someone on site at all times, that’s meant a lot of overtime, Locke said — on average, every day clocks about 60 hours of overtime, he said.

“We knew this was going to be a tough few months. It is a grind right now that the staff are in,” he said. The department averages about 15 calls per day, a heavy volume he noted, and they receive mutual aid often.

While the city’s collective bargaining agreement allows employees to be compensated while attending professional education activities, Locke noted that an agreement to revoke compensation for the EMTs while in class and not on shift is a major factor in why they’re able to pursue this licensure.

“Employees will be released from duty during class time but will return to work the balance of the shift upon conclusion of the day in class. This agreement reached with the union is significant; it is unlikely we would be able to support this endeavor without it,” Locke noted in the memo.

City manager Jessie Baker also lent her support for Locke’s request, noting it would be good for long-term planning to replenish “that rolling cycle of education.”

The city currently allocates $10,000 every year to a dedicated paramedic fund. During budget talks earlier this year, the city council gave an additional $50,000 of federal pandemic recovery funds to support fire and emergency medical service staff on top of the approved budget.

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