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Fire, EMS Bureaus Are Likely to Face Big Changes in City

PITTSBURGH -- A nationally known public safety consultant is expected to recommend sweeping changes to Pittsburgh's fire and paramedic bureaus -- but not a full merger -- at a meeting of a state oversight panel today.

Virginia-based System Planning Corp.'s TriData division, hired by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, delved into the damage years of budget cuts have done to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services bureaus.

The decimation of fire prevention and education, decrepitude of stations, and overstaffing in some areas and overwork in others that TriData encountered could lead to suggestions for station mergers and upgrades, restorations of some jobs, and transfer of a few duties from the paramedics to the firefighters.

The plan could generate friction with unions.

Big structural changes "would be contractual issues and it would have to be negotiated or decided on in a legal" forum, said Tony Weinmann, local president of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics, who had not seen TriData's plan yesterday.

The study also is expected to call for $20 million to be invested in fire stations, more than half of which is urgently needed.

Around half of paramedic stations also are believed to be so decrepit or obsolete that they should be replaced or completely overhauled.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would have to buy into the changes, and his administration would not comment yesterday. City Council might have a say; its members have not seen the report.

"This is the first I'm hearing about it," said council Public Safety Chairman Bruce Kraus, calling the lack of notification of today's meeting to council "indicative of systemic uncommunication" between overseers and council.

If the ICA embraces the plan, it has the means to push the city to adopt parts of it. The five-member panel can withhold approval of city budgets if it isn't satisfied with the progress.

Based on a draft report on the Fire Bureau obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, plus public discussions and interviews, TriData would like big changes for the 640 firefighters and 180 employees of EMS -- together a quarter of the city's work force -- and adjustments for some city neighborhoods.

TriData is expected to stick with fire station shifts and closures foreshadowed in the draft report.

All that is meant to cut staff by 69 bodies, saving $4.5 million.

Two paramedic stations, both in the city's southern neighborhoods, could be merged, but no staff would be cut.

Instead, the overtaxed EMS Bureau is likely to be asked to give the firefighters some of its special rescue operations duties, though not its River Rescue Unit.

Potentially problematic would be the Fire Bureau's assumption of the basic medical transport work done by EMS Bureau emergency medical technicians before the 2003 layoffs.

That suggestion would run smack into the deep mistrust between the two services -- and into the paramedics' contract that makes them the city's sole source of ambulance service.

"I don't see how that [shift] saves money," said Mr. Weinmann, noting that the firefighters earn more than the paramedics, and much more than the $10 an hour the EMTs used to get.

Rivalries between paramedics and firefighters, from rookies to ranking brass, are such that TriData is expected to recommend formal conflict resolution efforts and policies outlining which bureau provides which services at scenes of medical emergencies.

While urging cuts in some areas, TriData is expected to recommend hiring and capital investment to reverse the damage done by five years of cuts.

Fire prevention staff has been cut from 10 to two.

Gutted were public education functions and staff that tested building fire alarm and suppression systems.

TriData wants a renewed emphasis on that work, plus an upgrade in fire code enforcement.

Mr. Weinmann acknowledged some of the physical problems, noting some paramedic units are jammed into single rooms within fire stations, which he said is "not adequate."

The state-picked ICA board has authorized payments of up to $268,000 to TriData, and it's expected to consider continuing and perhaps expanding the consultant's role to help implement the recommendations.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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