- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

Beginning Sunday, D.C. medics will no longer have a separate chain of command, but will report to fire officials in the station houses to which they are assigned.

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Adrian H. Thompson ordered the massive reorganization last week and says the new structure will lower ambulance response times, put more units in service and increase employee accountability.

The order, dated May 14 but issued late last week, is the latest step in a process that has taken more than a decade of merging the firefighting and EMS divisions and creating one uniformed department.

But the order has drawn the ire of the department’s medics, who say fire officials do not have the necessary understanding of emergency medical care to supervise them. Medics have hinted at a variety of means of protest and job actions, ranging from an illegal work slowdown to a legal work-to-the-rule strike.

Currently, the department’s uniformed firefighters and civilian medics work different shifts, are represented by different unions, and have separate pay and benefits schedules. But Chief Thompson said the most immediate benefit of the reorganization will be that ambulances will no longer be unstaffed.

“Some units were going out of service due to staffing issues,” he said.

In the past, if a given shift did not have enough medics, firefighters backfilled the positions or the ambulance was temporarily placed out of service. Now firefighters, who are trained as EMTs, will be permanently assigned to six ambulances. In addition, three “power shift” ambulances, which currently operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., will be upgraded to provide 24-hour service.

Four more ambulances will be upgraded from basic life-support units to advanced life-support units by adopting a modified staffing plan that no longer requires them to carry two paramedics, but rather staffs them with one paramedic and one EMT.

“It allows me flexibility in staffing,” Chief Thompson said.

Chief Thompson said he expects the plan to reduce the response times for providing advanced life support to the most critical medical calls.

Ambulances arrived at the scene of critical emergencies within eight minutes of being dispatched in 70.8 percent of calls in fiscal year 2003, down from 74.4 percent of calls in fiscal year 2002. The goal is to provide advanced life support for 90 percent of the most critical calls within eight minutes.

Chief Thompson said that so far this year response times are “a little better than they were, but not where we want to be.”

He said the long-term goal is to have a firefighter-paramedic riding each of the city’s 33 fire engines and to have every ambulance staffed with one paramedic and one advanced-protocol-trained EMT.

Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3721, which represents the city’s medics, said asking his members to become firefighters is disrespectful of the service they provide.

Mr. Lyons has endorsed a bill introduced in the D.C. Council last week by council member Kevin P. Chavous that would establish an emergency medical services department separate from the fire department. Similar legislation was introduced in 2001, but never came up for a vote.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the fire department, will hold an oversight hearing on June 2 to address EMS issues.

Mr. Lyons said his members were infuriated by Chief Thompson’s order, which he likened to a “land grab.”

Some medics had threatened a work slowdown over the Memorial Day weekend, when an estimated 150,000 visitors, many of them elderly, are expected for Saturday’s dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall.

Rodney T. West, a D.C. paramedic affiliated with a group called the EMS Community Outreach Committee, said he does not advocate a slowdown, but has been delivering the message of medics who do.

He said the department has consistently filled the needs of the firefighting division while neglecting EMS. Specifically, Mr. West said the department has not done enough to recruit and retain medics, outfit medics with medications and equipment they are legally authorized to use, and do a better job educating the public on when to call 911.

“It’s a case of the haves — which is the fire department getting greater pay and greater benefits — and the have-nots — which is EMS doing 80 percent of the work,” he said.

A work slowdown would be illegal, and Mr. Lyons said he has urged his members not to participate and would order them back to work if they did take any unofficial job action.

However, he said medics could employ other legal means of protest, such as declining to work overtime, driving posted speed limits to and from emergencies, and fully scrubbing and mopping ambulances after each patient delivery.

While stopping short of saying he is organizing such a “work-to-the-rule” protest, Mr. Lyons did say he is advising disgruntled medics to “work within the rules of the agency and the contract.”

“I’m telling all my members, don’t extend yourself,” he said.

Chief Thompson said that any on-the-job protest would only hurt D.C. residents and he denied that his reform plan is an attempt to circumvent the union.

“It’s not about labor; it’s about service to the city,” he said.

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