Job hazard: City medics in negotiations should forget about turf

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The Pittsburgh paramedics union is making a mistake by engaging in a turf battle in its negotiations with the city. It could end up with no turf at all.

Members of Local 1 of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics rejected a proposed contract its leaders worked out with the city to replace a pact that expired nearly two years ago. A point of contention is a plan to streamline emergency response duties now handled by city crews on a dozen ambulances and two large rescue trucks and by firefighters.

City officials are under the gun to make revisions. State overseers want the fire bureau to have more responsibility for rescue work, such as freeing individuals when they're trapped in vehicles or stuck on steep terrain. Pittsburgh's 2009 financial recovery plan requires it. More important, the new allocation of resources should help get the right equipment and personnel to emergencies more quickly.

The Emergency Medical Services Bureau operates the ambulances and rescue trucks. The city wants to put devices used in rescue work on firetrucks and train firefighters for those tasks, and it wants to create a joint paramedic-firefighter unit. Because the rescue trucks then would be staffed by three firefighters and one medic, instead of four medics, the city could free up more medics for ambulance runs.

The union seems worried about losing clout, but the city does not want to reduce the number of paramedics or the hours that they work. The paramedics correctly want to assure that city residents receive appropriate medical care, but the union should not shut the door to all changes.

One measure of the gap between what is needed and what is available is demonstrated by the city's growing reliance on other ambulance crews; in 2010, the city requested aid from other ambulance services 47 times, but the number jumped to 124 last year and 127 so far this year. The number of EMS calls has grown from 55,774 in 2008 to 58,083 last year.

Integrating rescue work into fire bureaus is done in other cities, and Pittsburghers could be better served if it happens here. For one thing, it would allow paramedics to concentrate on what they do best -- providing essential medical care quickly to the residents who depend on them.

Without a new agreement with the EMS union, the city's next step could be a merger of the departments.



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