The Chicago Fire Department’s 75 advanced life-support ambulances will be equipped with “motor-elevated electric” cots
to minimize paramedic injuries and speed patient treatment.
Three years ago, electric cots were field-tested on Chicago ambulances with mixed results. When paramedics complained that the motor made the cot too heavy, the city decided not to go through with the purchase.
Instead, paramedics continued to place patients on old-fashioned stretchers and lift them into the ambulance, despite the risk of shoulder. neck and back injuries and the remote possibility of dropping an overweight patient.
Meanwhile, many private ambulance companies in the suburbs made the switch to electric cots that eliminate the need for heavy lifting and speed the process of loading patients into the ambulance.
Now, the city is prepared to try again.
“Beginning in late 2017 and into 2018, CFD will replace all ambulance cots with motor-elevated units,” the city’s 2018 budget overview states.
“This will eliminate the need to manually load patients and cots into ambulances. Electric cots greatly reduce duty injuries for CFD first-responders and reduce lost work time from injury and lay-up while also providing more rapid treatment to residents in need. The new electric cots are grant-funded and will be available in all 75 of CFD’s front-line ambulances.”
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford had no immediate comment—either on the cost of the electric cots or the extent of paramedic injuries tied to manually hoisting patients onto ambulances.
Joe Davilo, EMS Director for the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said he was “indifferent” to the upgrade.
“I have no opinion on it. I’ll go with what the city says. I imagine they have done all the proper study. If the city feels it’ll cut down on injuries, then it’ll probably cut down on injuries. I don’t want to debunk what the city says. It seems to be beneficial to the members,” Davilo said.
Last year, the Chicago Fire Department spent $50.5 million on overtime – 66 percent over its allotted budget for 2016 – with the largest totals going to paramedics.
Now-retired Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 President Tom Ryan blamed the city’s failure to honor a broken promise to add “at least” five ambulances by July 1, 2016, on a severe shortage of single-role paramedics.
“Adding additional ambulances without also adding a sufficient number of single-role paramedics to staff them makes no sense and is unsafe and impractical,” Ryan said.
This year, the Fire Department got off to another record start, with $13.9 million in first-quarter overtime spending. That was up 12 percent from the $12.4 million in overtime spending during the same period last year.
A retired Chicago paramedic, who asked to remain anonymous, predicted that electric cots would eliminate as much as 30 percent of all paramedic injuries suffered on the job and overtime triggered by those absences.
“It happens a lot because of the heaviness of the patient,” the paramedic said.
“It’s pretty hard to lift somebody—especially if they’re real heavy.”
Another paramedic, who asked to remain anonymous, said “chair stretchers” used to carry patients up and down stairs make paramedics “more vulnerable to shoulder and lower-back injuries.”
The veteran paramedic said he’s not opposed to the purchase of electric cots, provided the new units are field-tested first. But he also said, “Putting more ambulances on the street would be even better. What’s killing us is running from one call to another all day and all night.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and Local 2 blamed each other for a broken promise to add “at least” five ambulances by July 1, 2016.
“As part of the side letter with Local 2, the Fire Department and union agreed they would form a six-person committee to come to a consensus on the placement of the five new ambulances,” mayoral spokesperson Julienn Kaviar wrote then in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“The Fire Department sent a letter in January of 2015 to the union president and has not received the union’s appointments to the committee.”
Even without that committee, sources said the Fire Department did a study to determine locations for the five new ambulances that narrowed the list of possible sites to “fewer than fifteen.”
Ryan said he had “no record of receiving such a letter” from the city.