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Emanuel finally delivering 5 more ambulances; Vallas promises 25 more

Paul Vallas

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas talks to reporters about ambulance service Tuesday at a news conference. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved Tuesday to deliver on his four-year-old promise to add five ambulances, but mayoral challenger Paul Vallas upped the ante by promising 25 more ambulances to reduce dangerously high response times.

The five new advanced life support ambulances will be located at Engine 115 at 11940 S. Peoria in West Pullman, Engine 38 at 3949 W. 16th in North Lawndale, Engine 88 at 3637 W. 59th at in West Lawn/West Elsdon, Engine 121 at 1724 W. 95th in Beverly, and Engine 107 at 1101 S. California in North Lawndale/East Garfield Park.

The locations were chosen based on a meticulous study of run volume, type of medical calls, response times and distance traveled to the receiving hospital.

Designated sites “were then matched to firehouses that could take in an ambulance without construction.”

Vallas said five new ambulances is not enough to satisfy the need to reduce response times. Chicago needs 25 more ambulances — for a total fleet of 100 — and will get it over a four-year period if he’s elected mayor.

“If you look at the five largest cities in the country-per- capita, we have about 40 percent fewer ambulances than they have in those cities combined,” Vallas said, noting that New York City has “well over 600.”

“The lack of ambulances, the lack of EMS personnel . . . really creates conditions in which you have delays. The other day in the Back of the Yards, a 3-year-old was shot and the police had to transport this 3-year-old to the hospital because there was not an available ambulance.”

A former city budget director, Vallas said the $50 million cost could be paid for by improving ambulance fee collections, more aggressively pursuing insurance companies and by “monetizing” ambulances through “contract services when available” to hospitals, festivals, concerts and sporting events.

“If you are billing and collecting efficiently…each ambulance should pay for itself,” he said.

Emanuel’s long-awaited ambulance expansion was hastily announced in an apparent attempt to get ahead of Vallas’ broadside. The new ambulances will hit the streets Wednesday, one day before the start of Lollapalooza.

Vallas accused Emanuel of stalling the five-ambulance expansion to “punish” paramedics for endorsing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in 2015 then rushing to implement it to deprive Vallas of a campaign issue.

“Let’s see. What city problem can I solve tomorrow?” Vallas told a City Hall news conference minutes after the mayor tried to pull the rug out from under him.

Vallas wasn’t the only one to lambast the mayor.

“Rahm waits FOUR YEARS and now, because [Channel 2 investigative reporter Pam] Zekman whacked him and Vallas is whacking him about the shortage, he wants a medal?” veteran paramedic Pat Fitzmaurice wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

Calling Emanuel an “abject failure on public safety,” Fitzmaurice said, “We needed these ambulances 4 years ago. We should be adding 10 or 15 by now. the International Association of Firefighters did a study for Local 2 and recommended we need close to 100 to meet call demand.”

For now, at least, Chicago will have 80 ambulances capable of delivering the most sophisticated level of care.

The mayor’s office did not say how the $10 million expansion would be paid for.

Chicago ambulances and advanced life support engines and trucks handle more than 500,000 emergency medical calls each year.

The five-year firefighters contract that expired on June 30, 2017, ended Chicago’s two-tiered system of ambulance service.

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 move freed up the equivalent of 30 firefighters. At the same time, the city agreed to hire up 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 now-retired union president Tom Ryan pointed fingers at each other for the committee that never got appointed and for the additional paramedics who didn’t get hired.

In January, Emanuel finally started the ball rolling.

The mayor gave Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago three months to make specific recommendations on how many more ambulances Chicago needs and where those new ambulances should be located.

The long-awaited movement on ambulance expansion comes amid renewed signs of 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.

A few days later, the Chicago Fire Department put five more “surge” ambulances on the streets—despite the heavy overtime cost — to combat a flu outbreak that flooded hospital emergency rooms, forcing some to go on “bypass.”

More recently, the 3-year-old shot in both legs outside a Back of the Yards church had to be rushed to the hospital by Chicago Police officers, apparently because there was no ambulance available.

And WBBM-TV Channel 2 recently reported that it took more than 40 minutes to get a 56-year-old heart attack victim to the hospital on July 3.