Nature Coast Emergency Medical Service, the county-created non-profit ambulance system, offers less pay to entry-level emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, than any neighboring system. It also offers less starting pay to paramedics than most nearby systems.
But wages only tell part of the story, according to Nature Coast executive director Teresa Gorentz.
Unlike the other systems, Nature Coast reimburses EMTs for the cost _ about $2,000 _ of taking classes to become paramedics, Gorentz said. Employees can get reimbursed for other job-related classes, such as course work toward earning an emergency services degree, she said.
Nature Coast also provides employees with the 30 hours of continuing education they need every two years, while medics elsewhere sometimes pay for their refresher courses, she said.
"We try to do other things that are incentives for our EMTs," Gorentz said. "And I think we can find other incentives that also drive up quality."
Dollars aside, Gorentz said Nature Coast offers another important but intangible perk: a "healthy" working environment where employees feel comfortable.
She points to newcomers like Barbara Torchia, a paramedic who left a slightly better-paying job in April with Lake/Sumter EMS because some of the firefighters there made her feel unwelcome.
"Nature Coast is wonderful," Torchia said Friday. "I think they're more personal, more family-oriented, and they treat us more like real people.
"Money is important; you need enough to pay the bills," Torchia added. "But you also need to be comfortable where you work."
That said, Gorentz concedes that the starting pay for EMTs is perhaps too low for Nature Coast to remain competitive with the market.
Entry-level EMTs in Citrus make $5.88 an hour _ and that's with a 3 percent raise for all field workers approved May 9 by the Nature Coast Emergency Medical Foundation.
The starting wage for EMTs adds up to $19,573 over a year, Gorentz said. That figure includes some overtime pay because an EMT will work, on average, about 60 hours a week on a regular schedule (a shift is 24 hours, followed by 48 hours off). They receive base pay for the first 40 hours each week and time and a half for any hours beyond that, she said.
The wages for EMTs and paramedics go up incrementally, between 13 and 25 cents an hour, for every two years of experience they have in Citrus County or elsewhere.
Gorentz has a several-pronged solution to tackle the low-wage problem.
Nature Coast's budget for next year, if approved by the County Commission, includes funding for another 3 percent merit raise for all field employees, Gorentz said.
She is also looking into creating a $100 bonus that would go to each employee of the month.
But ultimately, Gorentz believes the best solution is to encourage EMTs to move up the pay scale by improving their skills.
Within the next six months, she plans to offer training to EMTs so they can learn how to start an intravenous, or IV, line on a patient. Adding that skill would bump EMTs up a pay notch.
"I don't want to say, "Here's another $2,000,' " Gorentz said. "I want to say, "Learn how to start an IV and we'll talk about a salary adjustment.' "
An EMT who gets the extra training to become a paramedic would see his salary jump $7,600 a year, she added. Unlike EMTs, paramedics can administer medications and perform more invasive treatments, such as intubations.
Once they become paramedics, they can move further up the pay scale by becoming an officer with management duties, Gorentz said. Since Nature Coast took over the ambulance system Oct. 1, Gorentz said, she has created six station lieutenant positions, three shift captain slots and three battalion chief positions. Each promotion comes with a boost in pay.
Gorentz said the employees and the system will benefit when pay increases are paired with additional job skills or responsibilities.
"We are building a 100 percent quality service and that will attract quality EMTs and paramedics," Gorentz said. "We need to be competitive with the labor market, not other EMS (providers)."
Comparing pay of rescue workers
Hourly pay (for entry-level employees
Agency EMT Paramedic
Citrus County (Nature Coast EMS) $5.88 $8.18
Levy County $6.03 $6.98
Marion County (Munroe Regional
Health Systems EMS) $8.22 $9.64
Annual pay (for entry-level employees)
Agency EMT Parademic
Citrus County (Nature Coast EMS) $19,573 $27,217
Lake/Sumter County $21,715 $27,913
Hernando County $22,348 $28,500
EMTs and paramedics with firefighter training earn a higher base pay in Hernando County.