NEW HAVEN – The fire union is proposing an alternative to the emergency plan the city presented: union President Frank Ricci said instead of adding two paramedic units and removing a fire engine from service, the city should consider placing paramedics into existing fire engine crews.
“It makes the most sense,” Ricci said. “Most departments all have medic engines that are backed up by transporting ambulances.”
Ricci and Union Vice President Mark Vendetto presented their “Save Your Neighborhood Fire Engine” plan during a recent editorial board meeting at the New Haven Register as debate continues between city officials and the union over the city’s plan.
Office of Emergency Management Deputy Director Rick Fontana said the idea to put paramedics with engine crews was something the city looked into, but decided against He said one of the main issues is staffing because paramedics are hard to come by in Connecticut.
“That’s a totally different avenue,” he said. “It requires at least 40 paramedics and there’s not enough paramedics in the region to staff every engine in the fire department.”
Fontana met with the union in July and showed them a plan to add two paramedic vehicles and hire 20 certified paramedics and train them as firefighters. The vehicles would be added to the fire stations at Whitney and Ellsworth avenues.
The plan was the result of a deployment analysis by Fontana, the city controller, chief administrative officer, EMS supervisor, and former fire chiefs Allyn Wright and Ralph Black which they discussed for two years. The union immediately disputed the plan and said they would approve of adding one paramedic unit to avoid the removal of a fire engine.
Ricci said for Fontana to present the plan was another example of him overstepping his boundaries.
The fire union recently filed a complaint against the city, citing alleged safety and labor concerns related to Fontana, who the bargaining unit claims has been performing the duties of Fire Department employees.
Ricci said the union also filed a Municipal prohibitive practice complaint against the city with the state Department of Labor.
There are currently two fire department paramedic units serving the entire city. In addition to that, the American Medical Response company provides ambulance services to New Haven residents. According to Fontana, the city calls for paramedic support from neighboring towns on a regular basis and that’s not something he believes should be happening.
“We should be able to handle those calls on our own,” Fontana said. “Just last week, between Friday and Saturday we called out for them eight times.”
Fontana said New Haven primarily uses West Haven’s paramedics when they fall short, but have also received assistance from paramedics in towns as far as North Haven, Derby, Wallingford, and Meriden.
“This was a general concept of increasing the number of paramedics,” Fontana said. “We need more and that’s the bottom line.”
To make room for one of the paramedic vehicles at the Ellsworth station, the plan proposed by the city includes removing fire Engine 9 and using one of the city wide squad vehicles as the local engine for that area instead.
The union believes removing a fire engine would cause a delay in response time.
“Your neighborhood fire engine 90 percent of the time gets there in less than four minutes,” Ricci said.
Thee union leaders said under the new city plan, a low-priority medical 911 call, such as for a fall, from a home near the fire stations that don’t have a paramedic unit would have to wait longer for the paramedic, instead of having the closest fire engine respond.
“That’s a waste of a perfectly good fire engine, it’s just sitting there ready to help with qualified firefighters, but instead Rick Fontana wants a paramedic unit, that will take longer, to respond,” Ricci said.
But Fontana said while the idea is to send paramedics to lower priority calls instead of fire engines, that would be determined on a case-by-case basis at the 911 call center. Calls in New Haven are categorized by priority. Depending on the call, either police, fire, or other services are assigned to respond by the 911 center.
“So let’s say if a paramedic unit closest to you was busy or too far, you would still get that engine,” Fontana said. “The 911 center makes that determination based on the triage system, they send the most appropriate piece of apparatus that will respond the quickest.”
Fontana also said that areas in the outer parts of the city, such as near the Lighthouse Road and the Fountain Street fire houses, the engines would be the ones responding most of the time because they are much closer, and less busy than the paramedic units would be.
Ricci, however, said the 911 call system is not always accurate because it is not common to get “bad information” when someone calls for emergency assistance.
“We (have) heart attacks that come in as sick calls, a shooting that came in as a heart attack,” Ricci said. “When people call they are nervous, their adrenaline is high.”
He said having a fire engine arrive quickly, in case the calls turns out to be more serious, is always safer.
“If it turns out to be something minor, then fine, but if it’s a more serious call, the neighborhood fire engine should be there in under four minutes to assess the situation, give the person the care they need and stabilize them until a paramedic gets there.”
Fontana said ultimately it’s not up to him or the fire union to make the decision about which plan will be implemented and how.
“The fire chief will make those decisions based on how he wants to tweak the system,” Fontana said.
He said the union contract negotiated in 2005 allows for the changes in the city’s proposed plan.
According to the contract, “the Fire Chief shall have the right to re-deploy the personnel from one (1) engine company only for the purposes of staffing two (2) additional ALS units…” where ALS stands for advanced life support, such as a paramedic unit.
But Ricci disagrees on the interpretation of the contract. He said using Squad 2 at Ellsworth Station, would mean essentially removing a squad unit, which the contract does not apply to.”They cannot rename a piece of apparatus,” Ricci said. “You can’t remove the squad, period.”
Vendetto said New Haven is also not the same city it was when the contract was implemented, and that should be considered. He said new buildings, new businesses, and a growing population mean there is need for an update.
“The city’s growing and it’s a great thing,” Vendetto said. “In 2005 when that contract was negotiated these things were not in place.”
Fontana said putting paramedics on fire engines is something that might be implemented in the future, but for now the decision to add the two vehicles is what the committee thought was best.
“This was the most cost effective, we think this bring the highest level of emergency care to your door step in the shortest period of time,” Fontana said.
He also said the union’s proposed pan would require negotiating the contract, which is a long process.
Ricci said when management and labor work together, things can be accomplished “quite quickly.”