Turf Battle over EMS Calls Heating up in Boston

Sept. 6, 2013
Boston firefighters, anxious for something to do, want to be dispatched to certain calls like shootings, stabbings and overdoses.

Sept. 06--Boston firefighter union bosses -- after getting shot down by the City Council last year on a bid to expand their duties -- now are looking to Beacon Hill to override city policy and get sent on 911 calls for stabbings, shootings and overdoses, a role city watchdogs say is best left to Emergency Medical Services technicians.

"The EMS EMTs are the best trained to respond to those kinds of calls," said Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. "I don't think there is any need to change that at this point in time."

State Rep. Nick Collins filed a bill on behalf of the city's fire union this week to authorize new duties that he said could save lives. He said Boston's 1,478firefighters -- 950 of whom have EMT certifications and already are authorized to respond to car crashes, cardiac arrests and other "Priority 1" 911 calls -- are strategically located in city neighborhoods and respond to most calls in under four minutes, while the EMS average response time for "Priority 1" calls last year was 5.7 minutes.

"It's about who can get there fastest," said Collins (D-South Boston), noting firefighters could help stabilize victims by controlling bleeding, providing oxygen and giving anti-overdose drugs until EMS ambulances arrive. "Victims don't care what uniform they have on."

But Dr. Barbara Ferrer of the Boston Public Health Commission, which oversees EMS, blasted the bill, saying large fire trucks and extra staff at stabbings and shootings could impede rushing critically wounded victims to hospitals. "The name of the game is load and go," Ferrer said. "We need easy access to a patient, and getting them in and out quickly."

Collins' bill comes as fire departments are "morphing from fighting fires to responding to medical emergencies," said Gregory Sullivan, a former state inspector general who is now research director at the Pioneer Institute. "It's a fight over turf."

BFD reports that multiple-alarm fires dropped from 417 in 1975 to 40 in 2012. Meanwhile, 47 percent of the 72,259 runs firefighters made last year were for medical emergencies or rescues, and fewer than 8 percent for fires.

Calls to Richard Paris, head of Firefighters Local 718, were not returned yesterday.

Collins and the fire union face strong opposition not just from EMS Chief Jim Hooley, Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis and Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser -- all of whom said yesterday they oppose the measure -- but even from like-minded politicians.

City Council President Stephen J. Murphy, who sponsored a similar proposal last November that died after a two-hour-long public safety hearing, said: "You can't legislate from Beacon Hill on how to run a city. We vetted it pretty well but it fell on the merits. I still think it's a good idea."

Police Superintendent William Evans testified on Murphy's measure that his officers also can provide first aid, and having fire crews traipsing over crime scenes could contaminate evidence.

Copyright 2013 - Boston Herald

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