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N4T Investigators: Staffing shortage causing Rural Metro to keep some ambulances out of service

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PIMA COUNTY (KVOA) - When you need an ambulance, you want one to be able to respond as soon as possible. However, the News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned from a source within the Rural Metro Fire Department that a staffing shortage is causing many of the private fire and rescue service’s resources to be left in park. 

The impacted resources include ambulances and fire tender trucks, according to the source. 

The source sent us two months' worth of staffing emails that show on a daily basis an average of five or more units that are being left unmanned. 

We took the information straight to Rural Metro Battalion Chief and Public Information Officer John Walka, he confirmed the staffing shortage saying, “These days, many fire departments see struggles with staffing from time to time and we are not much different.” 

We asked Chief Walka to do an interview he responded, “we will decline at this time.” 

Chief Walka didn’t answer our follow-up questions so, we reached out to the Old Pueblo Fire Fighters Association, the union representing the employees, Union President Nick Latini said in an email that, “the impact from being understaffed has on the firefighters I represent is extensive, but the impact to the residents is what the public should be most concerned about. An understaffed fire department is unsafe and a detriment to the community. “ 

We spoke with residents in the Catalina Foothills who are served by RMFD.

“If I were to call 911 and there wasn’t anyone to pull up, that would definitely scare me,” Tiffany Pelmont said.

She said she knows all too well how important getting an ambulance to respond quickly can be. 

“I was hospitalized last year in October. If there wasn’t an ambulance available, I don’t know what would have happened," Pelmont explained. "They should definitely put in full effort to hire more people so there’s enough to serve the community around here.”

Not everyone is worried about it. A man named Ricky, who doesn’t want us using his last name, said he has never had an issue with Rural Metro and isn’t worried about the staffing shortage. 

“I don’t really see any concern to keep me up at night or anything like that,” Ricky said. 

Online Rural Metro posted a job listing two weeks ago. It doesn’t mention how many people RMFD is looking to hire. According to our source, RMFD should have 130 field personnel but currently has 118. 

Due to RMFD being a private company it is not bound by the public record laws like government agencies, limiting our ability to receive information. 

Chief Walka sent the N4T Investigators the following statement:

“Rural Metro Fire Department in Pima County has received several recent inquiries about current rescue (ambulance) staffing.  Staffing, especially paramedic staffing, is a constant challenge faced by any fire department, and Rural Metro is no different.  Unfortunately, Rural Metro is experiencing a temporary shortage due to the absence of current employees for varying reasons such as FMLA, worker’s compensation injuries, personal injuries, military leave, special deployments, sick leave and contractually obligated vacation days afforded through the local union bargaining agreement.  There have been numerous occasions in recent months when rescues have been staffed with two EMTs instead of the normal one EMT and one paramedic.  Our customers and community are still receiving paramedic level care since our fire trucks are staffed with a paramedic as well.  In the event a patient requires paramedic level care, the paramedic from the fire truck will ride into the hospital with the patient on the rescue providing advanced level care along the way.  Additionally, there have been times when rescues have been shut down entirely.  This occurs less often; however, unfortunately it does occur.  Rescues being shut down is certainly a staffing issue – not a financial one.  The open shifts are made available for the firefighters to work overtime and rescues are not shut down as a cost saving measure.  In the event a rescue is shut down, neighboring rescues cover the area along with ambulances owned and operated by American Medical Response (AMR).  Because both Rural Metro and AMR are owned and operated by the same company, dispatching and the movement of units for coverage is seamless. 

Two cadets will graduate from Rural Metro’s fire academy within a week and plans for another academy later this year are being discussed.  Additionally, Rural Metro is hopeful some of the employees currently on leave will return to the workplace in the very near future. 

Rural Metro has been providing fire and emergency medical services in Arizona since 1948.  We strive to meet the needs of the communities and will continue to do so throughout these, and any other challenges faced”.

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 955-4444.   

*A previous version of this article stated RMFD did not send us a statement, but the statement was sent on Friday morning.

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Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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