Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jackson Pushes Through Fire/EMS Integration Despite Opposition

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM

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In the face of City Council's ire and consternation, Mayor Jackson has initiated the integration of Fire and EMS services in Cleveland.

No one can properly explain what the integration means in practical terms because the lingo is so confusing — "suppression apparatus" equals "fire truck" with this crowd — but here's what the plan boils down to: more ambulances, fewer rescue squads.

City officials are calling the integration an enhancement of services. It's a move that's been adopted by other municipalities in the region and has been catalyzed by a shift in the nature of emergencies. According to Cleveland's division of fire, 70 percent of all calls are now for medical issues, not fires.

But fire union president Frank Szabo says that statistic is misleading.

"That's not because there are fewer fire calls," he says.

According to Szabo, the fire department responded to 50,000 calls with 45 companies in 1990. In 2012, they responded to 65,000 calls with only 38 companies.

Seven companies were closed in 2011, and the current integration has meant two additional closures — rescue squads #1 and #3. Those two combined for 7,407 runs in 2012, averaging more than 20 per day. A Local 93 Press Release states that the integration plan reduces the city's total number of fire trucks to 34, its lowest number since 1899.

"I don't call that an enhancement," says Szabo. "I call that a way to veil service cuts. They're downsizing the fire department."

Larry Gray, the spokesman for the division of fire, doesn't have the foggiest idea why anyone would be upset.

"The goal is to have a faster response and less equipment," Gray says. "And that's really a win/win for the city. I can't speak for the firefighters, but I know that any time change comes around, people are uncomfortable."

Szabo contends that firefighters have been supportive of integration since the 1990s. It's just that the current plan, by his definition, doesn't resemble integration at all.

"What's the first thing you do when you're merging companies? Or consolidating?" Szabo asks rhetorically. "You get one person in charge of everything. You get one budget. So why do they still have two department heads and two separate budgets?"

He acknowledges that this is only the first phase in a much longer, more involved process, but he says firefighters are fearful that the city will never reach full integration. And they suspect their voices won't be heard along the way.

In nine informational meetings that new Chief Daryl McGinnis has had with department supervisors to explain the changes, Szabo says that every single suggestion put forth was "categorically dismisssed" by McGinnis. Firefighters voiced concerns that the initial stage might be happening too quickly, that certain aspects might not have been adequately thought through.

To wit: Most fire stations aren't equipped to handle additional personnel, and because many of them were built and outfitted before WWII, they're not designed to accommodate women. Also, because of the new arrangement and layout of advanced life support equipment and transport vehicles, the two new "non-transport" rescue squads won't be able to take anyone to the hospital, including injured firefighters.

At the meetings, McGinnis said they could always make "operational adjustments" on the fly. The supervisors were dumbfounded.

McGinnis was unavailable for comment for this story, and has been every day for the past three weeks. Larry Gray says McGinnis doesn't want to do any interviews "until the dust settles." But not only is he ignoring reporters; evidently, he's shirking city council as well.

At the public safety committee meeting last week, council members announced their individual frustrations broken-record style. And the primary concern was not the integration itself — only that they hadn't been informed.

They asked that the first phase be postponed until there had been a more thorough vetting. Council members literally had no idea what the plan entailed and were struggling to address the concerns of their residents without complete information.

They signed a request and delivered it promptly to Mayor Jackson. Jackson denied the postponement request, and the integration officially began on Monday.

Councilwoman Dona Brady was particularly incensed. "How do you take something away from me an call it an integration?This is more like an outegration. I told [Jackson and McGinnis] that if one person dies, it's on them. I really don't know why they can't wait, but the chief decided [the plan was good], and the Mayor is not going to second-guess his chief."

That makes one of us. Whether or not the integration can reasonably be attributed to the new chief is another question, but until the mercurial McGinnis emerges from the shadows, all we can do is guess — and keep guessing — what the heck he's doing over at City Hall.

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