Fire Chief: City To Save $1.8 Million Without Eliminating Positions; Union Disagrees
Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
January 29, 2013 – By mid-March, Long Beach Fire Chief Michael DuRee expects to receive the green light to move forward on implementing a new paramedic model he calls “rapid medic deployment.”
Facing budget cuts, the Long Beach Fire Department included the rapid medic deployment model in the fiscal year 2013 budget approved by city council last September. It would save the city an estimated $1.8 million.
Described in the budget as, “Similar to the paramedic model used in most counties in California, including San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties,” the rapid medic deployment model includes a reduction in the total number of ambulances per platoon, which consist of both basic life support (BLS) and advanced life support (ALS).
The eight ALS units are staffed with a minimum of two sworn paramedics. Three of the BLS units run on a 24-hour schedule and the other two BLS units run on a 12-hour schedule, each with two non-sworn emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Under the rapid medic deployment model, the department will increase the number of paramedic units per platoon from eight to 11, each staffed with one sworn paramedic and one non-sworn EMT driver, according to DuRee. That process reduces the number of sworn paramedics on ambulances by five, while adding one non-sworn EMT.
Instead of cutting those positions, DuRee said he would transition those sworn paramedics, who are also firefighters, to fill vacant firefighter positions on engines throughout the department, thus reducing overtime costs. All certified paramedics are firefighters first. Those working as firefighters, according to DuRee, who are also certified paramedics receive contractual 16 percent (additional) paramedic skill pay either as a paramedic or a firefighter, as long as he or she maintains that certification.
Additional budget saving measures taken to meet the 2013 budget include eliminating the fire engine at Station 17 (2241 Argonne Ave.), bringing the total number of engines in town to 16. With the transition to the rapid medic deployment model, those five sworn paramedics would be added to the 11 paramedics currently staffing engines throughout the city. In addition, a truck replaced the engine at Station 17 for the remainder of fiscal year 2013. The new paramedic model also includes placing a paramedic on that truck, DuRee said.
According to DuRee, with 16 paramedics on each of the city’s current 16 engines – plus the 11 paramedic units of the new model – residents of Long Beach would receive a minimum of two paramedics on the scene for every call. Under the current system, the engine that arrives on the scene may not have a paramedic, DuRee said, because the closest available system is what arrives to a scene first. In addition, the budget anticipates this model will help improve service.
Firefighters Local 372 President Rex Pritchard said he doubts that. Pritchard described the rapid medic deployment model as an experiment that messes with the status quo – a model that the department has been functioning under since its paramedic services were established in 1973.
In a letter to the media, Pritchard wrote: “City officials intend to begin an experimental program to split up the two-person paramedic teams that have served Long Beach for decades. This will result in Long Beach residents being subjected to a program studying the effects of further reducing ambulance coverage.”
While he identifies 21 firefighter paramedics to be cut, Pritchard told the Business Journal that number is a “floating number” but that at least 15 sworn paramedics will be eliminated from ambulatory services.
DuRee said those positions would not be cut, but transitioned to fill vacancies.
“Right now, every fire engine already has firefighters on it,” Pritchard said, alluding that there is no need to add firefighters to engines. He described the five sworn paramedics being removed from ambulances as cuts. He argued in his letter that this move “leaves Long Beach with fewer ambulances and fewer firefighters on the streets, and citizens who need firefighter/medics in the most critical moments of their lives will be the ones who pay the price.”
DuRee, who once served as vice president of the Local 372 union, said he is able to see things from both the point of view of the union and as chief.
“We respect that the union has opposition to this, but we are moving forward,” he said. “I have a responsibility because the people we work for demand that we are responsible with the dollars that they give us. Sometimes that is different from the will and the wants from the people who work for us. And I get that. I have been on that side of the table before. I have a great deal of respect for what the fire union does and my collaboration will remain so long as I’m chief.”
The department is now waiting for Los Angeles County officials to approve guidelines for the rapid medic deployment model. DuRee said he expects to begin implementation as early as March.