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EMS Redeployment Plan Causes Ripples

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/2/2013, 7:53 a.m.

Smith is one of Ellerbe's fiercest critics and they have been at odds for a while. Negotiations between the union and management has stalled and last year, an arbitrator found that Ellerbe unlawfully retaliated against Smith by transferring him from his work assignment after Smith publicly criticized him.

Mendelson, 60, at one point, took Ellerbe to task for not making a more conscientious effort to meet with Smith and other union members.

One of the unspoken problems that continues to roil the department is the racial tension. One black firefighter remarked that when other fire chiefs implemented policies no one complained but now that Ellerbe was doing the same thing, people are agitated.

That divide was illustrated in the Council Chamber. To the left of the dais sat dozens of white union members and across the room was a phalanx of predominantly black members, the vast majority in uniform.

Joe Papariello, EMS Committee Chair for Local 36, said the staff is not being properly managed.

"We need more staff during the daytime," he said. "They're robbing 'Peter' from the dayshift to staff the nightshift."

He said the department has lost 37 EMS employees since Ellerbe became chief and he accused him of refusing to rehire those who left and wanted to return. Papariello said he and his colleagues remain committed to the department's mission.

"No matter what challenges members face, we'll bring the best we can to safeguard the public," he said.

Jonathan Moore, of the International Association of Firefighters, was also critical of the plan.

"We need to return to the drawing board. They're using an outdated and untested calculation for this model. It should not be implemented haphazardly," he said.

During the hearing, Mendelson constantly referred to cultural issues - of firefighters wanting to put out fires but not do the EMS portion of their work. Several fire department employees who testified agreed that that is an issue with Smith saying "there may be some outliers."

Mendelson had a difficult time ascertaining the correct number of EMTs in the department from Ellerbe and his staff. One estimate had the number between 225 and 250. And as he studied the documents he'd been given, Mendelson became more frustrated.

"I'm a little bit disappointed. There's not a clear answer or discussion of the number of paramedics," he said. "... You don't say what numbers you're short by. Nowhere in this calculation is there accounting for vacations, leave or vacancies."

Mendelson said he'd asked for attrition rates for the past five years and the number of EMT employees at the beginning of October for the last five years but Ellerbe couldn't readily provide the numbers Mendelson requested. And an Ellerbe staffer blamed a PeopleSoft program for the difficulties they have had coming up with the numbers.

During his testimony, Ellerbe said the plan would increase and enhance EMS coverage around the city. He said increasing this coverage during peak periods by having more transport vehicles and paramedics available is the best way to solve this problem.

"Our folks do some of the best work in the country and now I want them to step up and demonstrate their commitment," Ellerbe said.