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A Pissing Match Long Overdue

A Fire/EMS merger might make sense, but there's lingering internal strife over the decision

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Eckart didn't know the precise wait times, but stressed the importance of EMS' system that prioritizes the most serious, time-sensitive emergencies. Wheeler said that right now, EMS is operating 18-20 ambulances every day, so the backlog situation has definitely improved.

Increases in personnel would also improve the efficiency and capacity of medical response, and Wheeler said that in the early stages of the integration discussions, the EMS Union voted on a memorandum of understanding with the city that would permit a limited number of firefighters to work on ambulances to help with their workload.

EMS employees say that agreement never came to pass because of disputes from the fire union, but that 45 new EMS hires have shouldered some of the burden. Szabo said that there have been dual-role firefighters who have already been working on ambulances for the past two decades with no additional pay.

Both sides are very sensitive to change, regardless of context. The Fire Union was incensed about losing two rescue squads in the first phase of the integration – these aren't trucks with ladders or hoses, mind you; they're more like the fire department's version of ambulances. At any rate, a union press release lamented that Cleveland fire has now been reduced to 34 companies, its lowest capacity since 1899.

That may be true, but Cleveland's population is also the lowest it's been in 100 years – 397,000, as of the 2010 census. Back in 1900, the population hovered at 381,000.

Depending on the changes, and how they're handled, it'll be a lot more than "sensitivity" the city will have to deal with.

A DUAL-ROLE DUEL

"The only apprehension I have is that in the [integration] process, both parties might not fare out equally," Orlando Wheeler said. "If one fares better than the other, that would create animosity among the ranks."

"We don't want to be overshadowed by a suppression-happy fire department," said another EMS worker.

It's not that animosity already exists, said Eckart in a phone interview. It's just that currently, the cultures of the two divisions are extremely different, and that makes a seamless integration challenging (over and above the challenges of logistics.)

"These are two divisions that are steeped in their own traditions and in their own types of operations," said Eckart. "Firefighters are very 'Chain of Command.' and they're very structured in the way they attack a fire, whereas EMS personnel are trained to be more critical, independent thinkers. They need to be problem solvers without having direct supervision."

That's why the word 'integration' isn't just semantics, said Eckart.

"We're not calling it a 'merger' because one division isn't swallowing up the other one. We're really integrating the strengths of the two existing divisions – the whole goal is to capitalize on their specific strengths."

That's a lovely philosophical ideal, but it doesn't necessarily solve the culture-clash problem. Nor, as EMS personnel have pointed out, does it resolve the thorny questions that remain about their pensions and their seniority.

EMS workers are worried that even top-level paramedics will enter the new system at the bottom of the barrel. They're also scared that their fire training won't be fully funded and that all the funds they've personally contributed to their pensions won't be matched by the new pension system.

"That's one of the things we're still going to have to figure out," said Eckart, when asked about pensions. "But it might have to be figured out on an individual basis."

When asked about EMS' fire training: "That another thing that we're still going to have to figure out. You know, sometimes these things change."

TRANSPAREN-What?

The lack of answers and planning has EMS employees extremely frustrated. A meeting scheduled for February 26 to explain the integration to the EMS rank and file was indefinitely postponed. Eckart said there was a scheduling conflict due to union negotiations.

"There's still a lot more that needs to be done," said Orlando Wheeler, tactfully. "Still a lot more information that needs to be disseminated. But remember, we're still – in terms of basketball or football – this is still the second quarter."

Many employees contend that these are questions that should have been answered before the tip-off.

Eckart said that the city was transparent in their planning – "communication is the key," he said – that they "engaged everyone," that they had over "100 hours of meetings" and commissioned "working groups" to explore specific subject areas.

Frank Szabo didn't feel like he was thoroughly engaged.

"Those little focus groups were hand-selected by the city," he said. "And they only made recommendations. There's no way of verifying whether or not those became part of the actual integration."

Szabo said the city even brought in an International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) integration expert, Lori Moore-Merrell, and that her input was poorly received.

By phone in Washington D.C., Moore-Merrell said that her expertise was in system design. Her team at IAFF uses geography and population demographics to approach improvements in city emergency response.

"They should've switched to an all-hazards infrastructure years ago," Moore-Merrell said.

She means the dual-role system where every emergency employee can respond to anything other than a criminal event.

"I'm not certain if they took my input," Moore-Merrell said, "but a lot of decision makers who haven't had experience in emergency response don't know that you can't equate call volume with number of vehicles. Response time is more important than transport." (Translation: Fire trucks are more important tham ambulances.)

Eckart said that in the next few days, four more fire engines will be equipped with advanced life support equipment so that they can be "first responders" to medical emergencies. But no word on which "phase" that upgrade falls under.

"The union would be okay with the phases, as the city calls them," said Szabo, "but we're just not sure what they look like. "We don't really know where they wanna take this." In his gut, Szabo still feels that this looks more like a downsizing of the fire division than an actual integration.

The EMS rank-and-file is on board too, but again, just wants answers to their questions.

"It's true that they distributed survey and had talks with the unions," said an EMS worker, "but I haven't seen or heard of a complete plan on paper that addresses structure, costs, timetables and rules. If this was so transparent, why didn't Eckart just pull out the plan and share it? Is it even written down?"

The Mayor's chief of communication Maureen Harper says an "operational document" exists and has been shared with union leadership but not the rank and file. However, within the document, there's no timeline set in stone.

Nevertheless, Ed Eckart is convinced that the integration will go smoothly.

"This isn't just political bluster: I truly believe that every one of these individuals raised their right hand on the day they were sworn in to serve the community. And at the end of the day, regardless of what their position is on what we're doing, they're going to answer the call."

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