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Mixing EMS, Firefighting Not Always Easy

The Toronto Sun via YellowBrix

October 12, 2010

That means the WFPS’s 10 ALS paramedics will jump to about 100 by the end of 2011, he said, explaining that’s when the merger is to be completed.

Brennan said the merger didn’t end up being the cash saver that was anticipated. But it has saved money by eliminating some management positions, including one of the two chiefs, and by reducing its number of stations by having firefighters and paramedics work together out of some facilities.

“We’re also able to operate with less ambulances than a city of the same size,” Brennan said.

Firefighters cleared about 10,000 medical calls last year without needing an ambulance, he said. One ambulance responds to about 3,500 calls annually, so that means the WFPS has eliminated three ambulances and saved about $3 million.

“All five unions have also maintained their respective collective agreements and no jobs were lost,” he said.

Brennan said there is now “relative harmony” within the service.

However, Brennan stopped short of saying the merger has been a success.

“It was a solution to a long-standing problem,” he said. “We spent so many years trying to move forward with amalgamation and this was simply a solution to that dilemma.”

He advised any city considering such a merger to first ensure management is on board with the plan and to convince the unions it’s “a good idea.”

That’s easier said than done.

Smitherman’s plan to amalgamate the two services has raised the ire of the union representing Toronto’s 1,171 EMS workers.

“This is Smitherman trying to re-create the wheel,” said Mark Ferguson, president of the Toronto Civic Employees Union, local 416.

“In terms of patient care, it would be a disaster,” he said, adding he didn’t know of any jurisdictions where such a merger has been successful.

Ferguson said it’s ludicrous to think anyone can do both jobs as well as someone who is focused only on one.

“You don’t send paramedics to fight a fire,” he said. “So you shouldn’t be sending firefighters to a medical call.”

The Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Union, which represents the city’s 3,100 firefighters, didn’t return calls.

And the Toronto Fire Service and Toronto EMS refused to comment because it’s against policy to talk about election issues.

But Toronto paramedic Rahul Singh said the question of whether or not to merge the two agencies is “a tough one,” but he expressed overall skepticism.

“I don’t see it working,” Singh said, adding there are ways to find cost savings while keeping the two services “independent.”

However, firefighter Frank Ramagnano said the idea is worth discussion.

“Technology expands. Why wouldn’t techniques evolve as well?” Ramagnano said. “Discussions … (have) taken place almost every place in Canada. They’ve definitely taken place in the U.S. Why haven’t they taken place here?”

Amalgamation appears to be working in Houston, where the fire service absorbed EMS duties in the early 1970s.

The fire department also took over EMS in New York City, but paramedics were left disgruntled as the traditions of their service virtually disappeared and they were left feeling like outsiders.

“From what I understand, there was almost blood in the streets,” Alex Pierson, president of the Toronto Paramedic Association, said of New York’s experience.

Things were eventually smoothed over when paramedics were allowed more of a say in their day-to-day operations.

Pierson said if the city wants to improve response times, it should open more EMS stations, buy more ambulances and hire more paramedics.