Alleging their grievances were not being heard, some members of the Cole County Emergency Medical Service announced Friday they are asking their fellow employees to unionize the county ambulance service.
An email asking ambulance employees to consider unionization was sent out Friday, the same day three ambulance personnel were fired.
"We had actually talked about joining a union prior to the director (Jerry Johnston) coming on board," said paramedic Brody Eller, who sent the email. "It is clear that management has destroyed the EMS department in Cole County."
Eller is a part-time member of the ambulance staff and currently is on military leave.
The request to unionize was sent to Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman and Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher.
Unionization would require a 50 percent vote of employees, the email stated.
"We've talked with the Lake Area International Association of Fire Fighters, and they have already agreed to bring CCEMS on if the members vote for it," Eller said. "The IAFF represents other ambulance services, including the Miller County Ambulance service. It would be easier to join them rather than form and begin our own union."
Brody's email also requested the immediate reinstatement of Mike Burks, Kim Kline and Aaron Steenbergen unless a legitimate reason for termination could be provided. Burks, Steenbergen and Kline's employment was terminated Friday after meetings with Johnston.
Burks, an emergency medical technician who has worked on the department for nearly 10 years, said he was not told why he was being let go, only that the service was "going in a different direction" and if he had other questions he should talk with the County Commission.
With these dismissals, the county now is looking to fill 10 positions — one EMT, one dispatcher, seven paramedics and the deputy chief. Four of the paramedic positions are on the night shift; the county hired an outside firm to try to recruit candidates to help fill those spots.
"They got rid of our 24-hour shifts, and that's what really screwed up things," Burks said. "They paid an outside agency to come in and tell them how to run things instead of just coming to us and asking us, 'How do you think things could be improved?' We could have fixed things for them for a lot less than what they paid them."
The County Commission approved the move from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts in August.
"More and more, our 24-hour crews are having to respond at night," Johnston told the County Commission at the time. "Doing so occasionally is one thing, but expecting them to routinely do that, especially if needed to complete transports to Columbia or further, is another. Fatigue comes into play, and that's oftentimes when accidents and errors occur."
Bushman said he had to be careful in how he responded due to the personnel matters, stating the only thing he could say publicly about the actions Friday was to confirm there were terminations.
"I can't emphasize enough that I don't want citizens to worry," Bushman said. "They will be covered. They won't see any difference in service. We (the commission) are in control, and Jerry (Johnston) answers to us."
Among ambulance services around the area, University Hospital in Columbia has four bases that have high-volume call levels where crews are on 12-hour shifts and three bases with 24-hour shifts, which see fewer calls.
The Osage County Ambulance service has both 12- and 24-hour shifts. Callaway County has its full-time staff work 24 hours and part-time staff 12 hours at a time. The Mid-MO Ambulance Service, which serves Morgan and Moniteau counties, schedules its staffs for 12-hour shifts, but those can go to 24 hours depending on staffing levels. All of Miller County Ambulance District crews work 24-hour shifts.
Former Deputy Chief Kevin Wieberg was dismissed last month. He has since taken the job of Moniteau County 911 director. He had filed a grievance after the dismissal but said he had an appeal hearing and "left on good terms with the County Commission."
Burks said Johnston was on "a mission to rid the service of those who had come over with the service when it was still being run by Capital Region Medical Center." The county took over the service in 2009 after voters approved the formation of a countywide ambulance district in November 2008, funded through a sales tax.
"We can't fill shifts," Burks said. "Nobody will come in off the part-time list that we have. We have trucks unmanned, and parts of the county are being put at risk. It boils down to the safety of the citizens. In the past, we've had people knocking down our doors to get a job. Not now."
Bushman said the county's employee manual states a terminated employee can come before the commission to appeal the dismissal.
"I just had one person who we just hired who came from Nebraska talk with me and was going to work as a part-time EMT for us and now has gone to full time," Bushman said. "I think there are a lot of different opinions about was going at the service. We listened to them when we they had the dissatisfaction with the former director, and he was reassigned to paramedic in July 2016.
"At that time, the commission engaged Paramedics Plus LLC of Texas as a consultant to work on system enhancements to the operations of the ambulance service, including reorganization of personnel," Bushman said. "We're trying to make Cole County EMS the best we can make it."
Bushman said he wasn't sure if there would be legal repercussions from what happened, but he said he is disappointed about the developments.
"These were friends of mine, so it's very hard. But in the end, we have to do what is best for the county," he said.