A scathing report released yesterday rebuked the Philadelphia Fire Department's culture, which it said caused paramedics to quickly hit a career ceiling and feel unappreciated and firefighters to undervalue calls for medical emergencies compared with fire calls.
According to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority report, the toxic environment has led to a medical emergency response time well below national standards. The national standard is responding within five minutes 90 percent of the time. The PFD responds within five minutes just 44.8 percent of the time.
The city's top public safety official Everett Gillison said the standard is an ideal most large cities do not achieve and that the administration has been aware of and working on the majority of the concerns raised. "We are a safe city," he said. "We've had the lowest number of fire deaths in Philadelphia history [the last three years]."
Commissioner Lloyd Ayers added that the departmental culture for paramedics is changing. "For a long time, it was hard to hire paramedics in the city," he said. "We've cut some of those limitations and hired nearly 40 paramedics in the last six months."
Part of the response time problem, Gillison said, is callers needlessly dialing 911, which drags down the response time. "Seventy percent of the calls we respond to are not emergencies," he said. "People are using a very sophisticated system to do some stupid things."
He said he would not be opposed to tracking down and fining people who abuse 911.
But Local 22 President Bill Gault said that the problems all boiled down to manpower. "We can’t keep asking people to do more with less. There's going to be a breaking point and I think we’re coming very close to that breaking point. The problem is, in our business, people die."
Here is a short list of recommended changes from the nearly 300-page report:
- There should be cross-training of paramedics and firefighters.
- The fire department should charge fees or fines when they respond to incidents that are not core services or are disproportionately costly. This includes auto accidents, emergency responses, special event support and inspections.
- The department should monitor response times to both fire and medical emergency calls and hold specific engine and ladder companies responsible if the two differ.