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Emanuel accused of breaking ambulance-expansion promise

Chicago Fire Department paramedics put a stabbing victim into an ambulance last year. | Network Video Productions

Veteran paramedics are accusing their union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of dropping the ball on a promise to pursue the addition of “at least” five more advanced life support ambulances by July 1, 2016.

The five-year firefighters contract that expires on June 30 included a dramatic upgrade in emergency medical care by ending Chicago’s two-tiered system of ambulance service.

Instead, all 15 of Chicago’s 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, since each one of the city’s BLS ambulances were staffed by a pair of firefighter-EMTs. At the same time, the city agreed to hire more paramedics — anywhere from 50 to 200.

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

It never happened. There has been no expansion. Veteran paramedics want to know why.

“It was completely dropped. It died. Nobody on the street has heard anything about that since then. It’s crazy,” said paramedic field chief Rich Raney, who is assigned to the firehouse at 55 W. Illinois.

“If you listen to the fire scanner, you will hear every day dispatchers saying, `Do we have anybody available on the North Side? Do we have anybody available out of Northwestern [Hospital]? Do we have anybody available at a variety of hospitals?’

“They are not available. . . . They have to send ambulances from way far away to the downtown area to cover because there’s not enough ambulances.”

The long wait for an ambulance may not show up on dispatch records, only because officials have “found a way around it,” Raney said.

“Say they call for an ambulance and nobody is available. They call for Ambulance 39 at Northwest Highway and Harlem and send them downtown. Fifteen minutes later, while that second ambulance is still in route, they’ll hear an ambulance come up from Northwestern [Hospital] and they’ll say, `Can you take this call?’ They give them that call and they cancel Ambulance 39. And it takes that ambulance that came from Northwestern two, maybe three minutes to get there,” Raney said.

“On the official log, all it’ll say is that it took that ambulance three minutes to get there. It doesn’t say that, prior to that, it took 10, 12 minutes for an ambulance to get even close.”

The wave of paramedic hiring promised during negotiations hasn’t happened either, veteran paramedics said.

According to Raney and veteran paramedic Pat Fitzmaurice, the last paramedic class was hired in December 2014. There have been three classes of firefighters since then.

Paramedics are assigned to work 24 hours on and 72 hours off. But, the shortage of paramedics has forced many paramedics to work 24 hours on and only 24 hours off for as long as three straight weeks, they said.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of overtime these guys are being forced to work. It’s not like, `Hey, do you want to make extra money?’ It’s kind of like, `We want you to work. I’m busy. Sorry, you have to work,” Raney said.

“After a while, you’re just zoning out. You’re totally tired all the time. You’re not making good decisions. It’s basically what they do in the Army to torture prisoners.”

Fitzmaurice said the city “hasn’t hired paramedics in three years despite taking 30 as cross-trained firefighters.”

“We’re probably 150 short,” he wrote in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Tom Ryan, retiring president of Local 2, was tight-lipped when asked why the ambulance expansion promise made in the contract side-letter was broken.

“On this particular issue, the ball is in the city’s court. We still await a response from them,” Ryan wrote in a text message, without explaining what he meant.

Mayoral spokeswoman Julienn Kaviar said: “In the April 2014 contract, we agreed with Union Local 2 to upgrade 15 Basic Life Support ambulances to Advanced Life Support ambulances, making all 75 Chicago Fire Department ambulances ALS vehicles. We did. The Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services Division continues to enhance resources and training to ensure EMTs and Paramedics have the tools they need when faced with extraordinary circumstances.”

The decision to end a two-tier system that paramedics have called a dismal failure followed investigations by Inspector General Joe Ferguson, WBBM-TV and the Better Government Association. All three concluded Chicago needed more advanced life support ambulances to consistently meet response time standards.