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Penn. EMS-Fire study will eye merger plan for two agencies

PITTSBURGH, Penn. A consultant's look at the city of Pittsburgh's firefighting and ambulance services could reignite debate about the structure of two lifesaving bureaus whose workers have been at odds.

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority voted yesterday to pay Virginia-based System Planning Corp.'s TriData division $74,000 to study the Emergency Medical Services Bureau, on top of as much as $194,000 it is getting to review the Fire Bureau.

"They're looking at everything from equipment to safety to training to coverage," said Barbara McNees, chair of the ICA.

Might they consider merging the bureaus?

"I don't see how you could do a comprehensive plan without looking at that," she said.

Merger discussions in 2003 led to acrimony between unions and threats to privatize the paramedics. When talks collapsed, that area left a hole in then-Mayor Tom Murphy's budget.

ICA Executive Director Henry Sciortino said the EMS study is part of an effort to finish a "global plan" for city public safety that started with a 2005 study of law enforcement by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The firm's study of the Fire Bureau should be drafted this month, refined next month, and presented to the ICA board in September, Ms. McNees said. The EMS review will come later.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hasn't committed to implementing whatever recommendations come from the study, but does welcome it, said city Finance Director Scott Kunka. "The more data, the better," he said.

The Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics doesn't have to wait for the study.

"We don't think that a fire-EMS merger is beneficial to the citizens of Pittsburgh," said Local 1 President Jeff Vesci. "We're world-renowned for what we do."

Nonetheless, he said he would be willing to talk about a merger, as long as pay parity is "the first thing on the table." Top-grade paramedics earn base pay of $47,470 a year, versus $53,425 for master firefighters, and the latter have better benefits.

The union's contract gives it a veto power over changes in EMS Bureau structure.

"Anything that's recommended about providing dual services should be looked at," said Joe King, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1.

The statewide fire union generally supports such mergers, said Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association President David Eckman. Many firefighters already have medical training, and since most people live near a fire station, giving them more expertise is good for the public, he said.

In Pittsburgh, firefighters often provide the first response to medical emergencies, and paramedics arrive to provide more advanced help and transport.

Mr. Murphy thought a merger of the two bureaus and cross-training of emergency workers would cut $15 million out of the city's annual budget.

The idea was to merge 200 ambulance workers into 900 firefighters and then cut 200 employees from the combined force. At the time, the Fire Bureau was a $53 million-a-year operation, and EMS cost $12 million.

When talks with union heads fell apart, Mr. Murphy threatened to privatize the paramedics and cut hundreds of firefighters. Privatization talks with hospitals went nowhere.

Though the merger never happened, some of the cuts did. This year's budget includes $49 million and 669 jobs for the Fire Bureau. EMS is budgeted at $13 million and 183 jobs.

The two unions have scrapped about turf issues like whether firefighters should learn to extract people from cars and search for underwater hazards, traditionally paramedic tasks.

TriData has studied many combined fire-and-ambulance services, advised cities on how to merge separate bureaus and helped privatize paramedics, said Stephen Brezler, the firm's director of local government studies.

"We would not start out with a predisposition one way or the other," he said of the idea of merging bureaus. He added that most of the cities they study already have combined services.

The national trend is toward consolidation of fire and EMS services. New York City merged the nation's two biggest services in 1996, but keeps some divisions between the units.

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