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Leaders eye shift in rescue service in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh leaders want to end a long-standing contract impasse with unionized paramedics this year that the previous mayor described as a public safety risk.

The dispute centers on who responds to crashes that require rescue operations. Former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh's financial overseers wanted to move the responsibility from paramedics to the fire bureau, saying firefighters can respond faster to life-threatening crashes and other incidents.

Paramedics contend they are better trained and capable of performing lifesaving techniques.

Ralph Sicuro, vice president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, said the union agreed to take on more duties.

“This is a territorial battle. There's no doubt about it,” Sicuro said. “One of the things that's always stated about this is we're taking over that service, and that's never going to happen. You need paramedics to do this work.”

On average last year, it took paramedics nearly eight minutes and firefighters four minutes to arrive at the scene of emergency calls, according to response time statistics provided by the city.

Mayor Bill Peduto wouldn't say whether his administration plans to insist, as the Ravenstahl administration did, on transferring the duty to firefighters, but said he wants the best possible rescue service.

“We have to look at ways to provide the service better than we now do,” Peduto said.

The city has contacted the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1 to begin contract negotiations but has not scheduled a meeting, according to Mark Bocian, Emergency Medical Services director.

Paramedics union President Anthony Weinmann did not return several messages.

Ian Frankel, a paramedic with 37 years of service, said he suspects the city's position changed under Peduto, noting that paramedics were the only city public safety union to endorse him in last year's election.

“We have a little bit of favor with him now,” Frankel said.

Peduto said there will be no quid pro quo.

Public Safety Director Mike Huss, who declined to comment, previously said the city wanted to transfer rescue operations to firefighters to improve response times and free paramedics to focus on medical emergencies. The city has about 160 paramedics. There are about 600 firefighters.

EMS calls are increasing, Huss said, and the city wanted to address the problem without hiring more employees.

Dispatchers send fire and EMS to accident scenes, but only paramedics can perform rescue operations such as cutting a vehicle away from occupants. City firefighters are certified as emergency medical technicians and are capable of providing basic lifesaving measures.

Pittsburgh is not alone in seeking to merge some EMS and firefighter duties. Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson's administration is negotiating with unions to merge the two services, spokesman Daniel Ball said. The Cleveland firefighters union last month voted against the move.

Cincinnati merged fire and EMS services in the 1980s, fire Capt. Chris Miller said.

“The benefit, I think, is to the citizens because firefighters are there within two to three minutes,” Miller said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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