Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 are blaming 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 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 Chicago Fire Department forged ahead with an internal study to determine locations for the five new ambulances that has narrowed the list of possible sites to “fewer than fifteen.”
Tom Ryan, retiring president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said he has “always advocated for more ambulances,” but has “no record of receiving such a letter” from the city.
“As of now, and for the past several years, there have not been a sufficient number of single-role paramedics in the Chicago Fire Department,” Ryan wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Adding additional ambulances without also adding a sufficient number of single-role paramedics to staff them makes no sense and is unsafe and impractical.”
Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter, agreed that the ambulance expansion he championed got “lost in the shuffle,” in part because of the shortage of paramedics.
“There is no how, no way if they put five more ambulances out there that they would be able to man ’em because they don’t have enough paramedics,” Sposato said.
“All of these paramedics are making a ton of money because they’re working a day, off a day, working a day, off a day. That’s a brutal schedule for paramedics because they pretty much take a beating out there. If they’re in busier ambulances, they’re doing 20-to-25 runs-a-day, four or five runs after midnight.”
Sposato noted that a class of 50 paramedics started their ten weeks of training this week and another class of 50 is scheduled to start in June. A third class may follow this fall.
Only then will the debate begin in earnest about adding the five ambulances and where those rigs should be located.
“Everybody’s gonna want ’em. The West Side is gonna want ’em. The South Side is gonna want ’em. The Southwest, the Northwest, the North. Everybody’s gonna be fighting [and saying,] ‘We need another ambulance. We want another ambulance,’”‘Sposato said.
“We can never have enough ambulances in this city as far as I’m concerned. Five years from now, we may be saying we need another five.”
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-EMT’s. At the same time, the city agreed to hire more paramedics — anywhere from 50 to 200.
The contract also included a side-letter promising to appoint a six-member ambulance expansion committee — with three appointees from both the city and Local 2 — within 60 days of contract ratification.
“The committee shall make every effort to assess and implement the appropriateness of at least the addition of five ALS ambulances by July 1, 2016,” the letter stated.
Last month, veteran paramedics accused Emanuel and their own union leaders of dropping the ball on a promised ambulance expansion they claim is desperately needed.
The wave of paramedic hiring promised during negotiations hasn’t happened either, veteran paramedics said.
Paramedics are assigned to work 24-hours-on-and-72- hours-off. But, a shortage of roughly 150 paramedics has forced many paramedics to work 24 hours on and only 24 hours off for as long as three straight weeks, they said.
During the first six months of last year, the Fire Department had already spent $26 million on overtime. That’s 86.6 percent of its overtime budget for the entire year.
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.