Mayor Emanuel promises to deliver long-stalled ambulance expansion

SHARE Mayor Emanuel promises to deliver long-stalled ambulance expansion

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Rich Hein/ Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved Thursday to deliver on the promise he made and ignored nearly four years ago: To put “at least” five more advanced life support ambulances on the streets of Chicago to reduce response times to medical emergencies.

The mayor gave Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago a March 31 deadline to make specific recommendations on how many more ambulances Chicago needs — in addition to its existing fleet of 75 advanced life support ambulances — and where those new ambulances should be located.

The cost of purchasing and staffing five more ambulances was pegged at $10 million. The mayor’s 2018 budget does not include that appropriation.

Santiago responded to the mayor’s mandate by sending a letter to the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 requesting a meeting “no later than the second week of January to discuss additional ambulances.” No specific number was mentioned.

The Fire Department has already completed a study to determine locations for the five new ambulances that narrowed the list of possible sites to “fewer than 15,” sources said.

“Ensuring that Chicago has the highest quality emergency medical services and rapid ambulance response times is a top priority. We are committed to adding up to five new ambulances to our fleet,” Santiago said in a statement.

“The ALS Ambulance Committee is conducting an evaluation of the future locations of the additional ambulances. … I will make our recommendations to the mayor in this quarter.”

The long-stalled expansion can’t come soon enough to satisfy Local 2 President Jim Tracy.

“On Jan. 2nd, the city was out of ambulances and Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) could be heard asking for any available ambulances to respond to a still and box at 2204 North Newland,” Tracy wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Ambulance 7 was on special duty at Humboldt Park and was released to respond, as was Ambulance 33, which was at the Quinn Fire Academy. … Waiting until there are no ambulances available, then releasing them from special duty puts all of Chicago citizens at a serious risk.”

Tracy ridiculed Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford for saying the city was “a little in the red, so we put more ambulances in service.”

“A LITTLE IN THE RED? The Commissioner or someone on his staff must have known the wind chills would be below zero (0) for at least a week and we would have a greater need for additional ambulances,” Tracy said. “The Commissioner has to put the extra ambulances on the street. Local 2 can’t.”

Joe Davilo, EMS director for Local 2, added, “When you have delays of 30 minutes or greater, that would tell you there’s a greater need.”

The Tuesday shortage the union cited wasn’t the only sign of recent stress on an EMS system long viewed as inadequate.

On New Year’s Eve, veteran paramedics say there were 754 ambulance runs between midnight and 6:45 a.m. That sent response times soaring to sometimes dangerous levels.

Langford acknowledged there was “some stress on the system” that night.

But in a text message, Langford insisted that “CFD paramedics were on scene in reasonable time and treated patient until more paramedics arrive in ambulance.”

He was referring to firefighter-paramedics assigned to fire engines and trucks.

The five-year firefighters contract that expired June 30 ended Chicago’s failed experiment with a two-tiered system of ambulance service.

Instead, all 15 basic-life-support ambulances were converted to advanced-life-support, giving Chicago 75 ambulances capable of administering the most sophisticated level of care. The city also agreed to hire 50 to 200 more paramedics.

Within 60 days of contract ratification, the city and Local 2 were to each appoint three representatives to a committee to oversee ambulance expansion.

It never happened.

Instead, Emanuel and the previous leadership of Local 2 pointed fingers at each other for the committee that never got appointed and for the additional paramedics who didn’t get hired.

On Thursday, Davilo urged the city to stop the blame game and get moving on an ambulance expansion he claims is desperately needed.

He blamed the surge in call volume — to 3,000 calls a day — on “social factors” that include an increasing reliance on emergency rooms for immediate medical care by Chicagoans who don’t own cars.

“If you’re running the operation and you see these numbers, wouldn’t you think the leadership of the Fire Department would put more ambulances up?” Davilo said.

“The city has the ability to put five more ambulances up tomorrow. The only thing the contract does is establish a minimum of five. To say it’s an issue with us is a false statement.”

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