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Philadelphia FD Study Calls for Cross-Trained Paramedics

When the state agency that oversees the city's finances commissioned a report on the Philadelphia Fire Department two years ago, it was with the hope that a rational examination of the department's political hot-button issues could be done.

That study, released Wednesday, did not shy away from some of the most controversial problems - referencing in the first few pages the distrust between labor and management, and the history of racial and gender tensions in the ranks.

Read the Report: Fire Department Management Study

The report also described a Fire Department culture "resistant to change," and was critical of a management structure that "tends to reinforce the status quo."

"The gap between the current reality and the department's aspirations for itself is wide," the study said. "Bold action is needed to communicate that the department is shifting to a new organizational and operational paradigm."

To that end, the study envisions a department that is leaner, more efficient, and more integrated - potentially saving the city more than $11 million a year.

The department could achieve these goals through a number of initiatives - privatizing many services, eliminating some positions, instituting fines for nuisance calls.

The 289-page report bores down to such detail as to question whether the department needs to employ a full-time mail clerk.

But on perhaps the most contentious issue of all - the deployment of fire companies - the study does not recommend any radical changes to the city's network of fire stations.

The city closed seven fire companies in 2009, and has been "browning out" others on a rotating basis. The firefighters' union has criticized the moves as pure budget slashing that jeopardizes public safety.

The study provides three scenarios in which efficiencies could be achieved with the shifting of equipment. One scenario recommends merging one station and moving two others; the other scenarios suggest no station changes.

The study, conducted by Berkshire Advisors, an Ohio-based consultant group, said the need for brownouts would be eliminated if the city followed the study's recommendations.

The apparent linchpin of the strategy would be beefing up the role and number of paramedics, many of whom now suffer from low morale and feel "exhausted and defeated."

The study says paramedics should be cross-trained as firefighters and should be available to assist "fire suppression needs."

Overall, the department now does a good job responding to and fighting fires, according to the study, but falls below national standards for responding to medical emergencies.

"Firefighters do not place the same importance on these calls as on fire calls," the report said.

Some of the blame lies with the number of "nuisance calls" and a dispatch policy that does not adequately prioritize calls that require a speedy response, the study said.

Currently, paramedics are backed up by firefighters, who get paid overtime to cover the overflow of medical calls.

"We're wasting a half-million-dollar truck and four guys because of a bellyache," said Bill Gault, president of Local 22 of the firefighters union. "In a perfect world, every firefighter would be a paramedic, and that would alleviate everything."

Gault also said he would welcome a better relationship with management and the administration - as advocated in the report - but noted the two sides have been locked in a bitter legal fight over the rank-and-file's contract.

Gault said he was still reviewing the report Wednesday, but it appeared to be an unbiased and fair evaluation. He nonetheless questioned whether the city would be willing to spend the money necessary to make the recommended changes.

Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor for public safety, said the administration was still digesting the report as well, and he was noncommittal on what changes would be adopted. He did note that 40 paramedics recently joined the department.

Gillison also said some of the suggestions on management structuring were part of the department's 2009 strategic plan, which was mostly put on hold by the budget crunch of the recession.

"They have some things here that we are familiar with, that we look forward to implementing," he said. "We'll go forward and see how we can do it."

The report noted a "generational turnover" was coming in 2013, when every deputy chief and half the battalion chiefs are slated to retire.

The report urged the department to do more to heal racial divisions that plague the ranks.

In recent years, one group of firefighters, the Concerned American Fire Fighters Association (CAFFA) has alleged discrimination against white firefighters in the hiring and promotion process.


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