Paramedics set to meet with officials on contract impasse

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The Pittsburgh paramedics union leadership and city public safety officials likely will meet again for contract negotiations after medics in an overwhelming vote rejected what the city had described as its final offer this week.

Neither union president Anthony Weinmann nor Public Safety Director Michael Huss is sure yet when that meeting will take place, but both signaled they would be willing to further discuss an agreement. The union has been without a contract since December 2010.

The Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics, Local 1, on Thursday voted down the city's proposal 124-4. Unlike police and fire unions, arbitration isn't an option for paramedics.

Mr. Weinmann said though the union is authorized to strike, it has chosen to proceed with day-to-day operations.

"We're currently working and we're going to see what develops," Mr. Weinmann said.

Mr. Huss said he thought the city offered an agreement that met the parameters of the state's Act 47 oversight of city finances.

"It's not to say that they have not performed well," he said of the medic bureau. "It's to say that we want to redistribute our existing resources to meet the growing needs of our city."

Both men declined to talk about what was specifically discussed in the latest negotiations.

City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who heads the public safety committee, couldn't be reached for comment.

Mark Pinchalk, a Pittsburgh paramedic for 23 years, said the rejection was not over financial issues, but rather the shifting of rescue work to the fire bureau.

"The bigger problem for us is breaking up the [medic] bureau and removing that rescue arm," he said.

He gave the example of one particular rescue in April 2011, when paramedics rescued 22-year-old Kristi Demel after she climbed over a fence and fell off a cliff at the West End Overlook. She appeared to have a broken leg and foot, so medics stabilized her leg while still on the hillside and gave her intravenous painkillers and fluids.

Alone, the medics deployed the medical resources and rescue equipment to both deal with her trauma and move her to safety, Mr. Pinchalk said.

"By the time we were ready to move her, she was ready and sedated," he said Friday, recalling the story. "She had a very comfortable and safe extrication off that hillside."

The city has proposed putting vehicle extrication equipment on fire trucks, which respond to accidents anyway, and a joint paramedic-firefighter unit for more sophisticated rescues, such as those involving confined spaces or industrial accidents.

City firefighters, who are trained in vehicle extrication, often have down time between fire calls. Their newer trucks have space for storing rescue equipment.

Mr. Huss noted that Pittsburgh is one of the "very few places" where paramedics perform rescues.

The city also believes its EMS bureau is too bogged down and has said it would be overwhelmed during a catastrophe.

Mr. Weinmann doesn't dispute that his team is stretched thin.

For at least 20 years the bureau has been budgeted at 160 employees, he said. But times have changed -- demands for service have grown, as has travel time; emergency rooms have closed, meaning longer trips around a sprawling metro region, he said.

"There are days when the paramedics start at 7 a.m. and may not get back to the station until 5 p.m.," he said. "Just as times changed, maybe they need to revisit the budgeted amount."

But with fewer paramedics needed for rescues, officials have said the city could put more ambulance crews on the street at peak hours.

Mr. Weinmann noted that paramedics have been doing this rescue work for decades, though.

"Currently," he said, "we do provide the best rescue work."

neigh_city

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede.


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