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Philadelphia Mayor Acts Quickly to Shore Up EMS System

PHILADELPHIA -- Responding to widespread criticism of slow response times by city ambulances, Mayor Nutter acted yesterday to shore up the city's emergency medical services.

With a quick infusion of money for overtime and hiring, Nutter announced that the Fire Department put two new ambulances into round-the-clock service yesterday morning, and will add more units over the next 12 days.

The moves come after several Daily News stories of slow EMS responses, a highly critical report by City Controller Alan Butkovitz and the threat of public hearings in City Council.

"We take your concerns very seriously," Nutter said, referring to citizens worried about the 911 system. "The government is responding."

Councilwoman Joan Krajewski joined Nutter at yesterday's news conference, saying she was pleased with his actions and would not hold planned hearings on the city's EMS system.

Butkovitz said he was "very, very impressed and heartened" by Nutter's moves. Brian McBride, president of the firefighters union, joined in praising Nutter's action.

"It's a good, positive first step," McBride said. "It's about 25 percent of what we need."

Union recording secretary David Kearney said that besides adding ambulances and personnel, the city needs to better prioritize its call-screening and dispatching procedures.

Among the steps planned to improve EMS performance:

  • A combination of new ambulances and expanded hours will increase the number of vehicles in service during the day from 45 to 50, and at night from 28 to 33.
  • Money is being added to hire 40 paramedics, in addition to seven recently hired. They should provide relief for medics who will be working extensive overtime to expand service.
  • An educational campaign will be conducted to discourage citizens from calling 911 in situations that aren't emergencies. The city also hopes to have a 311 system up by the end of the year to answer non-emergency calls.
  • The Fire Department will put two new "emergency field operations chiefs" on the street to monitor and supervise EMS operations and recommend improvements.
  • Work continues on an enhanced 911 call-taking and dispatch system. Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said he couldn't estimate when the system would be operational.

The changes announced yesterday are expected to cost about $3.8 million per year.

No changes are planned in the city's policy of not using private and nonprofit ambulances for 911 calls. Officials of several private services have offered to augment the city's emergency services.

Ayers said the city plans to improve communications with non-municipal ambulances for disaster-response planning, and hasn't ruled out a future role in answering 911 calls.

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