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EMS in the News

EMS Unions: Limiting Firefighters’ Exposure to Virus Makes Pay Case. Too Valuable to Be Paid $35G Less?

ONE BIG NERVOUS FAMILY NOW: While gatherings like this at city firehouses were a common sight until recently, the Fire Department’s decision to no longer have firefighters respond to medical calls involving respiratory illnesses, instead leaving those to Emergency Medical Service workers, reflects concern that any firefighter infected with the coronavirus could spread it to fellow firehouse members, given that they share quarters while working, and take them all out of service and into quarantine. Photo courtesy of FDNY, via Flickr
  • By BOB HENNELLY                                                                         March 10, 2020

While firefighter-union leaders called the FDNY decision to order their members not to respond to medical emergencies that might be linked to coronavirus a prudent move to avoid infecting entire firehouses, Emergency Medical Service union officials said the decision made their case in recently begun contract talks for substantial pay raises for their troops.  Beginning March 6, the department directed fire units to not respond to fever, asthma, respiratory-distress, anaphylactic shock or unconscious-patient calls. These calls will now be handled exclusively by EMS.

                                                    Where They'll Still Go

"Firefighters continue to respond to the highest-priority medical calls, whether they are potential COVID-19 calls or not, including all segment 1 incidents (life-threatening), cardiac and respiratory arrests, choking, and trauma incidents," Frank Dwyer, the FDNY's Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, said in a statement. "This order only removes Firefighters from other call types that are rarely potential COVID-19 calls and it allows the Department to prioritize call types and send our resources where they are needed most, as is done during extreme weather, natural disasters, or periods of very high call volume."  Union officials praised the strategy as a way to head off the possible loss of neighborhood fire coverage in the event firefighters came down with the virus, forcing entire firehouses to go under quarantine.  That's what happened in Washington State, where Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency March 7, after a man in a nursing home died from COVID-19, the first such fatality reported in the country. Twenty-five local firefighters, who helped patients at the senior citizen facility, had to self-quarantine.

                                                   'Reduces Our Exposure'

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda said the FDNY move was just common sense.  "Fire companies have several missions—medical calls and fire responses—and management acted proactively and responsibly," he said. "This scaling back of the medical responses reduces our exposures, and can you imagine if we had to shut down half of the city's firehouses to self-quarantine?  The department is just trying to reduce the exposure here and maintain the level of fire protection the city has to have," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald. "As it is, on these kinds of calls it was the EMTs actually treating the patient, and we never transported them in any circumstance. If we got sick, we would just become part of the problem."  The unions representing the department's EMS workforce also supported the FDNY move, but said it underscored the serious understaffing of EMS and the need for pay parity to encourage retention which they said has been a problem because of a $35,000 salary gap between firefighters and EMS workers.

                                                     'Highlights Our Risks'

"We understand the department's position in that the fewer people on a response scene, the lower the risk for contamination," said Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37 Local 2507, which represents EMTs and Paramedics. "But at the same time, they have to acknowledge the risks and dangers we face every day like from an infectious disease, which may not be as apparent as a wall of fire yet are still significant for our members.  EMTs and Paramedics are medical professionals trained in how to deal with infectious diseases like coronavirus, and members of EMS will always step up and protect and serve the people of New York," said Vincent Variale, president of DC 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers. "Our main concern is that historically EMS has been understaffed and under-supported, and even in a case like this we continue to see the Mayor insist on not recognizing EMS as the critical first-responder agency it is."

Mr. Barzilay said the FDNY could use an additional 1,000 EMTs "because right now the overtime we are working is unsustainable and they are pulling crews from all the other boroughs just to cover the Bronx."  The EMS unions are in the midst of contract talks with the de Blasio administration.

                                                     Fewer Crews Available

At a Jan. 28 City Council hearing, FDNY brass testified the department's policy of "promoting" Emergency Medical Technicians to become Firefighters had produced a major gap in Emergency Medical Service staffing.  As a consequence, they conceded that even as the city continued to set records for EMS call volume, and response times for those calls were rising, there had been a decline in the number of ambulance crews available, a circumstance they said would take "a couple of years" to rectify.  Administration officials cited a confluence of factors: the physical limitations of the FDNY's Queens training facility at Fort Totten that's slated for a multi-million-dollar upgrade; a national shortage of EMTs and Paramedics; and "a churn" of 1,200 EMS members into firefighting jobs every four years when a promotion exam began being used.

                                                     Claim Race, Gender Bias

The EMS unions have argued that the vast pay-and-benefit disparity between their members and Firefighters meant a mass exodus by those who passed the Firefighter promotion exam, resulting in a less-experienced workforce, debilitating overtime for those who stayed and fewer ambulances on the street.

Both EMS unions are suing the city for race- and gender-based pay discrimination because a majority of their rank and files are made up of people of color and women whose pay is well below that of the other uniformed services. The most commonly cited disparity is that between Emergency Medical Technicians and Firefighters. After 5½ years, maximum EMT pay is $50,604, compared to a Firefighter maximum of $85,292.

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