On the eve of a dramatic upgrade in ambulance service, the Chicago Fire Department is making changes that, union leaders warn, could put the lives of paramedics and the public in danger.
Self-contained breathing apparatus are being removed from all 75 Chicago ambulances. In addition, roughly 70 paramedics graduating from the fire academy on Sunday will not be issued fire helmets, boots and protective clothing, known as bunker gear, that are standard issue for firefighters.
Without breathing masks and oxygen tanks, veteran paramedic Pat Fitzmaurice said paramedics will no longer be able to go into a burning high-rise–or subway after a derailment, collision or explosion–to rescue victims or firefighters in distress.
It also means that, instead of being right in front of a fire scene or in close proximity to a chemical spill, they may be staged a block away, Fitzmaurice said. That could add seconds and even minutes to the time it takes to rescue and treat victims.
The decision to strip paramedics of equipment specifically purchased for them was announced in an order signed Thursday by Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas, who runs the Bureau of Operations.
“On Sept. 20, SCBA units will be removed from service on all ambulance units,” McNicholas wrote, spelling out the turn-in process without explaining why.
The Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 has filed a grievance to protest changes that, the union contends, violate its contract with the city and put Chicagoans at risk at the worst possible time.
“With the real threat of terrorism worldwide at its highest level in years, Chicago is considered to be a prime terrorist possibility along with also being recognized as a city with multiple high-target hazards,” Ryan wrote Friday in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“The timing of this change in response protocol is suspect. As firefighters and paramedics serving a large city like Chicago, we need to be prepared for any and all emergencies…[and for] the worst-case scenario.”
Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford countered that Chicago was the “only major department in the nation” that outfitted “single-role” paramedics in fire gear and is simply “falling in line” with its counterparts.
“Single-role paramedics do not respond in burning structured or in hazardous location fires and they do not need the tanks or fire-resistant clothing,’ Langford wrote in an e-mail.
As for the bunker gear, Langford said new paramedics will be issued “more comfortable clothing better suited to EMS operation.” It will include a “traditional helmet,” waterproof utility boots and clothing tailor-made to “block transmission of patient body fluids.” Existing paramedics will keep their bunker gear until it needs to be replaced, he said.
“Single-role paramedics do not operate in a fire or hazardous situation. Patients are brought to them,” Langford said.
Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins added, “The city has deep respect for the men and women who protect residents and we will continue to ensure they have the equipment they need to help them do the job they were hired to do.”
Fitzmaurice argued that the changes make no sense at a time when fires are down and the overwhelming majority of 911 calls are for emergency medical service (EMS).
“If we don’t have self-contained breathing apparatus, we can’t be anywhere near a toxic environment. That means precious seconds are lost,” Fitzmaurice said.
“When victims come out of a fire, they’re wet. Some are not breathing. It’s a wild, rushed scene. Now, there won’t be a stretcher there. Paramedics will no longer be near fire scenes. If there’s a high-rise fire, they’ll no longer be in the lobby or evacuating the stairwell. If there’s an incident in the subway, you can’t send paramedics down there. They’ll be staged at a distant location. People can die.”
Fitzmaurice pointed to two recent incidents where firefighters went into cardiac arrest at fire scenes and were resuscitated by paramedics wearing breathing masks.
He also recalled an incident that occurred on Valentine’s Day, 2013. Ambulance 52 was returning to quarters from a run that ended at Loretto Hospital when civilians jumped in front of the ambulance in the 100-block of North Central.
A house was on fire and victims were trapped inside, paramedics were told. According to Fitzmaurice, the paramedics were then able to put on their helmets, protective clothing and breathing apparatus and go into the house to rescue someone who had gone in to search for a child.
The decision to strip paramedics of a breathing device they campaigned long and hard for—and that ambulances have special compartments to carry—comes as the Chicago Fire Department ends its 15-year experiment with a two-tier system of ambulance service.
Starting next week, all 15 basic-life-support ambulances will be converted to advanced-life-support, giving Chicago 75 ambulances capable of providing the most sophisticated level of care.
The decision to end a two-tier emergency medical system that paramedics have called a dismal failure follows investigations by Inspector General Joe Ferguson, WBBM-TV and the Better Government Association. All three concluded Chicago needs more advanced life support ambulances to consistently meet response time standards.
The newly-approved firefighters contract calls for the appointment of a six-member committee to study the need for even more ambulances.
And yet another study is under way to explore the possibility of relocating existing ambulances. That has Northwest Side aldermen fearful of losing ambulances campaigning against the change before a final decision has even been made.