The D.C. fire department is set to hire civilian paramedics to address dire shortages in its emergency medical services workforce — moving forward with a major policy shift that reverses decades of efforts to establish an agency whose employees are cross-trained as both medics and firefighters.
"Up until recently, our mandate has been to hire paramedics who are also firefighters," Paul A. Quander Jr., deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said in posts to a D.C. government Twitter account Thursday afternoon. "We have lots of people with the proper certifications who want to be paramedics for us, but don't want to run into burning buildings."
The department's uniformed firefighters and its dwindling number of civilian medics work different shifts, are represented by different unions, and have separate pay and benefits schedules. The bifurcated model led to tensions between providers of the different services and accusations of inequitable treatment.
Officials sought to absorb the civilian medical workers into the fire department, hiring firefighters who were trained as paramedics or paramedics who were willing to be trained as firefighters. The civilian paramedic positions were expected to be eliminated through attrition.
The unification of the department — city policy under the past three D.C. mayors — was included in a report by a task force impaneled to recommend improvements after the 2006 death of New York Times journalist David Rosenbaum. An investigation found that a neglectful, botched emergency medical response contributed to Rosenbaum's death.
Unification of the department was recommendation No. 1 in the final report produced by the task force — of which Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson were members.
Mr. Mendelson said Thursday that he was surprised by the shift.
"The policy for two decades has been to go to dual roles and it was recommended by the Rosenbaum task force as well," Mr. Mendelson said. "If they are going to go to single-role for paramedics, it's a step backward for what has been policy as well as the recommendation."
A spokesman for Mr. Quander said officials are entitled to make the hires after obtaining a variance from the District's Department of Human Resources in April that allows the agency to diverge from its previous hiring practices.
While department officials have spoken about the desire to hire single-role paramedics to fill vacancies, department leaders have not said when new employees would be hired or how many they intend to bring on board.
"It's been done under the wire and not transparent or done before the council or the public," firefighters union President Ed Smith said. "What's the goal for the total number of medics, who's going to be dual role, and who is going into be single?"
Kenneth Lyons, president of the union that represents the department's civilian medics, supports the move.
"Some people see this as a short-term fix," he said. "I see this as a short-term fix with long-term possibilities in terms of changing the policy and recognition of the need."
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