Currently, EMTs are not considered for retirement until after 30 years of service, unlike law enforcement and firefighters.
“We are the new kids on the block,” said Bradley County Emergency Medical Service director Danny Lawson.
“We, the paramedics and EMTs of Tennessee, ask you to recognize that our dedication to public safety is no less than that of police officers and firemen. Adopting this legislation will allow us to have equity in our retirement plan and futures,” Lawson said.
House Bill 69 passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly and was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, according to Watson.
The next step is to get U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann to introduce legislation on the federal level for retirement equality.
Fleischmann was in Washington and could not attend the resolution reading Monday.
In 2007, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill creating the bridge program within the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. The program supplemented retirement benefits for police and firefighters who are “classified as public safety officers,” according to Lawson.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis, City Council members and County Commission members were on hand when Watson presented the resolution to Lawson.
Rowland said he supports the resolution and knows from firsthand experience EMTs and paramedics deserved the same classification as police and firefighters.
Police and fire personnel can retire after 25 years of service, but EMTs and paramedics don’t qualify for the bridge program at age 55.
“A change in the definition of public safety officer will create equality for those dedicated EMS personnel and qualify them for the same retirement benefits as police and fire,” Lawson said.
“You don’t do this for the money or prestige,” said Watson, “You do your job from the heart. You are the folks who console loved ones on the scene of tragedy.
“The events which occur in our world every day and the risk factors involved are there,” he added.
Sonny Hayes, 35-year veteran of BCEMS, said during his first response experiences as a paramedic, he has been shot at, stabbed and suffered broken bones.
“Many times, we are the first to arrive on the scene,” Lawson said.
Rowland said he couldn’t understand why EMTs are not currently included in the provision.
Retired Cleveland Police officer and current Cleveland City Council member Brian Smith said he is appreciative the bridge program is in place, allowing him to retire after 30 years’ service.
Both the Council and Commission plan to sign a joint resolution to support the effort.
John Clines, a 30-year veteran of BCEMS, said for him, “It gets harder every day. We should have the ability to retire earlier.”
Stressors of EMS include dangerous responses to all fires, police actions and other emergencies, and simple manual lifting of patients, to name a few, according to Lawson.
“It is relevant for us to be included as a public service. In some cities, a paramedic under fire service may not qualify [the same] as his or her firefighter brother or sister, and the paramedic or EMT won’t get the same retirement benefit.
“We are public safety professionals and we should be considered for that,” said Ken Wilkerson, chief of Hamilton County Emergency Medical Service.
Wilkerson said he had a paramedic on staff who is 65 and facing a second heart surgery soon. The paramedic has 25 years of service and will have to continue to work to get the TCRS retirement at 30 years’ service.
“We are necessary first responders and have been in Bradley County since 1972,” Lawson said.
BCEMS was established by the county government. A number of other counties in Tennessee also have medical service operations.
Lawson also noted some counties have private EMS operations.
Watson encouraged residents to call their congressmen to show support for the bill and push for a federal change in the definition.
“This is a bill that is very well deserving to our EMS workers,” said Watson.