News13 investigates safety of mandatory overtime schedules for first responders

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – In order to keep you safe, Horry County says they’re having to make some people work 48 hours straight thanks to a shortage in paramedics.

Horry County Fire Rescue implemented the mandatory overtime policy last year, but other departments say that policy may cause more problems than anything.

Billy Hatchell with Florence County EMS says there’s a national shortage in paramedics, and it’s causing problems in staffing for departments all over our area.

“We just don’t have the people like we did years ago that wants to make this career a choice in their life,” said Hatchell.

That’s the same thing Brian Van Aernem with Horry County Fire Rescue told us when we asked about their mandatory overtime policy back in May.

“Sometimes we have openings, you know, that we need to fill. So, sometimes, we have to hold people over to make sure that we have the appropriate number of ambulances and fire trucks out on the road,” said Van Aernem.

That interview was after an ambulance hit a concrete barrier on the 17 bypass near Surfside where the driver was on a second 24-hour mandatory overtime shift.

Florence County has a similarly overtime policy, but they’re workers are not allowed to exceed 24 hours, whereas in Horry County they can double that, working 48 hours or more.

“When you ask someone to come to work, and they work 32 straight, 48 straight hours, the mental capacity and the fatigue to provide quality patient care drops dramatically,” said Hatchell.

Hatchell says doing that would be dangerous for his staff and the people they care for.

“I mean, studies have already been done and shown that when you come to work at 8 o’clock in the morning, you’re sharp, you’re fit, you’re ready to go, but by 2 am in the morning, it’s the equivalent to like having a 6 pack of beer,” said Hatchell.

Unlike a pilot who can only fly 30 hours per week or a doctor who can’t exceed 80 hours per week, there is no limit on how many hours EMS workers can work in a week.

Attorney Craig Snook says the county isn’t doing anything wrong by implementing the shift, but if one of the drivers were to crash while on mandatory overtime the people involved would have a case.

“It’s the same type standard. They’re going to have to be careful about what they do because the public has a right to rely on them to do their job and to do it correctly and to do it safely,” said Snook.

The Murrells Inlet chief says they’ve never had a mandatory overtime policy and don’t plan to in the future.

North Myrtle Beach operates on a volunteer based overtime policy.

Florence County’s policy is that the scheduled overtime never exceeds 24 hours because Hatchell says their job depends on one thing.

As for Horry County, Van Aernem says right now, they have no plans to change their mandatory overtime policy. He says they’re waiting for two recruit classes to finish training and hope to have them in by the first of the year, but like many in other departments around the nation, they’re still having trouble finding who want to stay with the profession.