EMS Worker: ‘We’re killing people out there’
By RON AIKEN
Two weeks after a Richland County Sheriff Department Deputy committed suicide on duty, Richland County Assistant Administrator Kevin Bronson told a monthly meeting of approximately 100 County Emergency Management Services (EMS) personnel that a whistleblower who wrote a long list of complaints about conditions in the EMS department should either commit suicide or quit, multiple sources present at the meeting Thursday morning told Quorum.
“He said ‘I’m reading this letter with more than 50 complaints, and if it’s that bad, you should just go kill yourself or leave,” said a paramedic in attendance. “He’s saying this to a whole room full of first responders. Everybody just lost it and blew up at him. Some people left the room they were so angry, some people cried.
“It’s the most heartless and unprofessional thing you can say right now, especially with increases in suicides among first responders. And the fact is it is that bad as the letter said. It’s worse, because nothing has been done even after the problems have come to light.”
A 2015 study on suicides among first responders by the Journal of Emergency Medical Services showed that first responders attempt suicide at a rate more than 10 times that of the general population.
Those in attendance who spoke to Quorum said they took Bronson’s words as a message to anyone who complained about pay or long hours from being chronically short-staffed and overworked.
“Saying that to a room full of EMS people, everyone took it personally,” another paramedic said. “The complaints he mentioned were our complaints, real complaints, and he basically said not only were our complaints invalid, if we didn’t like it we could leave or kill ourselves. That’s how we took it.
“The reaction was intense.”
All sources Quorum spoke to said not only was the suggestion extremely offensive, but who it came from — essentially the County’s No. 2 employee behind County Administrator Gerald Seals — made it even more unbelievable.
“We were just shocked,” a paramedic with more than a decade at Richland EMS said. “A couple of the girls started crying, another person said they were going to file a complaint.
“Before (Bronson) even said that he told us that he didn’t trust us. He said he trusts the human resource department and everyone there from the County but not the (EMS) employees. He said that several times and that he was not there to take questions from us or listen to us.
“It tells you how seriously the County Administrator’s office takes EMS’ concerns. They basically said our complaints were B.S.”
Not only aren’t the complaints frivolous, one EMT worker said, they’re deadly serious.
“One person stood up and just pleaded (with administrators) and said, ‘We’re bleeding here,” the EMT worker said. “‘This is an emergency situation with personnel and you should have recognized it yesterday.
‘We don’t eat, we don’t get breaks, we don’t have enough trucks to respond to people in time and we’re killing people out there. If someone has a cardiac arrest, it takes 30, 45 minutes to respond to a call because we don’t have the crews. That’s the difference between life and death.’
“He was absolutely right. We are killing people out there. And it’s only getting worse because the way we’re going now, we’ve lost probably 15 people since May and I know of another 15 or so who are actively looking.”
A big reason people are looking — and the main reason that County Human Resources Director Dwight Hannah, County HR Manager for Strategic Development Tammy O’Berry and Bronson were there in the first place — was because of concerns about the County raising insurance premiums for EMS workers with families by 28 percent.
“I’m looking,” said a paramedic with two children at home. “I have to. I know probably about 20 other people with applications out. My own paycheck is going down by about two hundred dollars a month, and we haven’t had raises in EMS at all and meanwhile the fire department and police department have gotten raises. People are jumping ship faster than they’re being replaced, and all the County will say is that ‘We’re working on it.’
“It all combines for just terrible morale here. It’s terrible. And I guess according to the County, we can either leave or kill ourselves. I mean, seriously. Those are the options the (Assistant) County Administrator said fit someone who’s unhappy with the situation we face. You just look around the room and are like, ‘Did he just say that? How can this be real?'”
When contacted Thursday, the whistleblower whose letter Bronson referenced said they couldn’t believe Bronson’s response to concerns about patient care.
“I can’t even imagine the thought process that takes you there (to suggest suicide),” they said. “It’s incredibly callous and ignorant not to understand that what’s being expressed are concerns from first responders about what they need to save lives. In most business situations, if you present someone a list of real problems, most leaders would want to address them, not urge people to kill themselves if they don’t like them.
The meeting, which was videotaped by EMS personnel, set off a flurry of phone calls and social media posts Thursday afternoon and evening, most expressing disbelief that Bronson could speak that way to first responders already stretched to their physical and emotional limits.
“I can’t fathom that someone in any position, much less a high-ranking position, would say something like that out loud, much less in a room full of people,” an EMT said.
“I mean, how stupid can you be?”