Pittsburgh says paramedics put rescues in jeopardy
By Bob Bauder
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
People trapped in life-or-death situations are waiting much longer for help from Pittsburgh emergency personnel because of a union contract that prevents firefighters from performing rescues, city officials said Tuesday.
The Fraternal Organization of Professional Paramedics Local 1 didn't respond for comment.
A veteran paramedic last week said the quality of service to patients is at stake because firefighters aren't as well trained on vehicle, elevator and swift-water rescues. Paramedics have handled rescues exclusively since 1977.
The city is negotiating a contract with the union, which represents 156 paramedics working under the terms of a deal that expired in 2010. The main sticking point is that the city wants to transfer rescue operations to firefighters to improve response times and free paramedics to focus on medical emergencies.
“I see the system as very fragile,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss said. “The number of medical calls is increasing, and we want to address it by shifting some personnel without adding personnel.”
Last week, paramedics voted to authorize a strike rather than accept a new contract with the change. Joe King, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1, which represents Pittsburgh firefighters, could not be reached.
Last year, firefighters responded to emergencies within eight minutes of receiving a call and within four minutes most of the time, according to statistics supplied by the city.
Officials were unable to supply 2011 statistics for paramedics, because paramedics track calls differently, according to Huss.
A 2008 study conducted by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority — one of the city's state-appointed fiscal overseers — reported that paramedics' response times were far below national standards. In 90 percent of calls, it took 17 minutes and 37 seconds on average for paramedics to respond.
Paramedics averaged 56,500 calls annually over the past four years, and the city is seeking help more often from medical teams in neighboring communities, said Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Pittsburgh requested outside assistance 47 times in 2010; 124 times in 2011; and 127 times so far this year, she said.
Both the ICA and the city's Act 47 financial-recovery team have recommended that the city move rescue operations to the fire department. City officials have been trying to do so since 2010, Huss said.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said firefighters there began performing rescues decades ago.
“To rescue someone from a collapsed building or to do an auto rescue, that's what our firefighters are trained for,” he said. “Our (paramedics) are trained in medical procedure.”
Capt. Charles Twigg, a 20-year veteran of the Akron, Ohio, fire department, said his city combined fire and emergency medical services in the 1970s. About half of Akron's 325 firefighters are certified paramedics; they respond to both fire and medical calls.
“It's just risk management,” Twigg said. “You're rolling the dice to say that while they're out on a medical run, we're not going to have a house right next to the fire station burn down. We just don't see the data to suggest that happens very often, so we continue.”
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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