Mayor Ravenstahl tells me he's prepared to use Pittsburgh Firefighters, suburban EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and EMS managers to fill the gaps, if the paramedics union goes on strike. Here's a transcript of my question and answer session with the mayor.
Q: On the negotiations with paramedics, should Pittsburghers be worried -- are you worried -- about what impact this may have if things turn more sour in these talks?
A: "I'm not worried and residents shouldn't be worried. I have talked with our public safety folks and am adamant about the fact that we will keep people safe. If they decide to strike, we have a plan in place to respond to that. And we should not see any interruption of service and I believe that we'll be able to keep people safe."
"So, we're going to hold the line. We believe that we've negotiated a fair deal. And we believe we've negotiated a deal that will actually make residents safer in the long term. That will put more ambulances on the street. It will transfer the rescue work from EMS over to Fire, to use some of those firefighters that have that ability, and free up paramedics and ambulances to do more work. That'll put two more ambulances on the street. Our response times already are not good enough. They need to improve, and this will improve the overall delivery of services in public safety."
"They want to make it about our union versus their union, that's not what this is about. This is about delivery of safety services for all residents. Whether it's a firefighter, a paramedic, a police officer, the resident doesn't care. The resident doesn't care. The resident wants to be safe and this is going to make our city safer."
Q: What about the paramedics union suggesting that somehow the best medical care or response isn't adequately addressed under these changes that you want?
A: "Well, we disagree with that, (number) one, because when you look at the history of rescue work. First of all, we have a large number, I think it's over 300 firefighters who are trained EMTs. So, these individuals have expertise and training to do it. And a large number of rescue calls, in fact, don't even require medical service. A lot of the times they are people who are stuck in elevators. Or, you know, they find themselves in a situation where they can't get out of some place. So these are not emergencies in a lot of cases. These are not issues that need medical attention. In some cases, do they? Yes, but in that case we have EMTs and others that can do it."
"So, we're not putting this on the table in any way to jeopardize pubic safety. In fact, we're going to enhance it, and that's why we're so adamant about it. Previous studies, Tri Data, for example, called for this to happen. The Act 47 team (the city's financial overseers) put it in their plan, and now here we are, attempting to implement it and we think we're doing the right thing by the taxpayers."
(While discussing the history of the paramedics contract talks, the mayor added this next comment, which prompted my follow up questions.)
A: "…If they go on strike, we're prepared to deal that."
Q: If there's a strike, would EMS managers be sufficient to cover, or would you pull people from the Fire Bureau to cover?
A: "We would do a combination of both. We believe the EMS managers and the paramedics that are there now would team up with a trained EMT that happens to be a firefighter now, and that's how we would handle the situation. We believe we have enough manpower, at least in the short term, to do that. It's not uncommon, even under the current system for us to call mutual aid and have others come in and help. So, if we need to do that, we'll do that just like we do now."
"The pubic safety director and I have had numerous conversations about this. Obviously, we are concerned if a strike happens, but we are also prepared. And he has given me his word and I believe, just given what he's shown me, that we're prepared to do this in the event of a strike. We hope that doesn't happen, but if it does, we're prepared for it.
Q: So, suburban EMTs and paramedics could wind up responding to Pittsburgh emergencies under this cooperative deal, existing cooperative deal?
A: "Well, and people may be surprised to know, they do now. They do now in a lot of cases, so that wouldn't change. That happens. It's called 'mutual aid' in the event that we are, you know, our ambulances are out and we don't have the ability to get to a call, suburban communities come in now and help us. So that's not different. There are times where we do the same for them, and it's called mutual aid. So, that may happen. But I want to be clear that that's not any change in current practices. That happens currently under our existing agreements."
Q: And the firefighters union wouldn't balk at the idea of being pressed into service?
A: "We've had discussions with them and we expect that they would be cooperative, yeah."