City hears report on fire, medic cuts, consolidation

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The state-appointed overseers of the city of Pittsburgh today heard a consultant's recommendations on the future of the firefighting and emergency medical services bureaus, and the oversight chairwoman said she wants to see some of them reflected in the city's 2009 budget.

"We would anticipate some of this stuff would be in the budget," said Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority board Chairwoman Barbara McNees following the presentation of 152 recommendations by Virginia-based System Planning Corp.'s TriData division. "Nothing is going to happen tomorrow," she added -- especially a two-stage revamp of fire stations that would merge some soon and close a few others once the frequency of fires goes down.

"We have scientific information that we have significant safety concerns," said Joe King, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1. He also noted that TriData has recommended significant spending on the city's stations and fire trucks but hasn't said how to fund it. "How much are you willing to invest in the operations or the implementation of this entire study?"

TriData wants the city to "thoroughly investigate" the possibility of fully merging the Fire Bureau and Emergency Medical Services Bureau. It recommended against shifting to a privatized, or hospital-run, medical transport service -- something that former Mayor Tom Murphy considered.

TriData recommended the merger of the Brighton Heights fire station on Orchlee Street into Woods Run's firehouse on Central Avenue, and of Oakland's Allequippa Street station into the one on McKee Place. It called for the consolidation of Greenfield's Winterburn Street station and Hazelwood's Flowers Avenue station into a single, new facility at Hazelwood Avenue and Gladstone Street. Swisshelm Park's Homestead Street station would move to Squirrel Hill, near Tilbury and Forward avenues.

Later, after building demolitions bring a reduction in fires, engine companies on Squirrel Hill's Northumberland Street, and on Arlington Avenue in Arlington and Essen Street in Northview Heights, plus a Lawrenceville ladder truck company on Penn Avenue, would be phased out.

That would cut the ranks from 641 firefighters to 572, saving $4.5 million a year. The capital plans, plus upgrades to stations, would cost $19.6 million, including $12.1 million in "very high priority" renovations.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he agrees with consolidation of two North Side stations and those in Greenfield and Hazelwood, but said the city "is in absolutely no position" to shut down companies in Arlington, North Squirrel Hill, Northview Heights or Lawrenceville. He said he believes some of TriData's recommendations could be incorporated into the 2009 budget, but did not yet know which ones.

TriData called the Fire Bureau "one of the premier firefighting organizations in the United States," noted for "their tenacity and firefighting aggressiveness." But it also noted a "lethargy" in the organization.

It found that the city's abundant abandoned buildings resulted in more serious fires than most cities its size, and a fire death rate 42 percent above the national average. But fire prevention, education, and sprinkler and alarm testing jobs have been gutted and should be brought back.

"Prevention is your first line of defense," said Steve Brezler, project manager for TriData. "There needs to be a reorientation."

TriData also recommends better planning for bridge and tunnel emergencies, and a Fire Bureau fitness drive that could include city-provided exercise equipment in the stations or subsidized gym memberships.

TriData found that it was taking medics 11 minutes to make it to many scenes -- significantly longer than the 8 minutes that could be achieved with better organization.

Also rising are overtime costs, as medics work double shifts and 80-hour weeks to handle the call volume.

TriData found "that EMS personnel cannot continue the tempo needed to earn the extravagant overtime money" that some are making. It recommended limiting medics to 16 hours of continuous work per day -- down from a 20-hour maximum now -- and a 56-hour workweek.

It recommended the resurrection of the EMT role, but probably in the Fire Bureau, where new recruits are already trained to be first responders to medical calls.

Also going to the Fire Bureau would be some of the EMS Bureau's special rescue operations, but not the River Rescue Unit. The two bureaus would merge their training facilities.

Mr. King said most of his members would welcome expanded roles. Tony Weinmann, local president of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics, wondered how the Fire Bureau could do more when it isn't meeting response time standards now.

TriData found a need for "expensive repairs" to medic stations, which are plagued with asbestos, water leaks, cramped facilities, poor lighting and a lack of women's bathrooms. Seven of 12 medic stations should be replaced, it said.

Medic stations on Mathews Avenue in Knoxville and on Walter Street in Allentown would be merged, possibly into a new station.

The ICA voted to extend TriData's role, authorizing $145,000 in consulting to help the city implement the studies and to study the Bureau of Building Inspection.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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