Fire union opposes dept.'s decision to hire paramedics
Orlando's union president Ronald Glass said the department should be hiring more firefighters who can also respond to medical calls instead of 25 paramedics
By Jeff Weiner
ORLANDO — The Orlando Fire Department plans to hire 25 paramedics, a move opposed by the city’s firefighters union but which Chief Roderick Williams says will help the agency handle the increased demands of a growing city.
The Orlando Fire Department plans to hire 25 new paramedics, Chief Roderick Williams said Monday.
It would mark a shift for OFD, which currently doesn’t employ civilian paramedics. All of its firefighters are either emergency medical technicians or paramedics. The fire department handles 70 percent of the city’s medical emergencies, while paramedics working for a private ambulance company take the rest.
“This plan will not replace firefighters,” Williams said. “This is to increase our service delivery to our citizens of Orlando, not to decrease firefighters.”
But Ronald Glass, the union’s president, said the city should be hiring more firefighters — who, in addition to handling medical calls, can tackle house fires and other emergencies.
“We feel that it’s a reduction in service to the citizens of Orlando,” he said.
Williams’ plan comes at a time of heightened tension between the city and the union. The two sides are at an impasse in negotiations on a new contract, divided on issues from drug testing to the rules under which employees can be transferred or disciplined. The union in October cast a vote of no confidence in Williams, which he called a “smear campaign” in retaliation for the contract squabble.
The plan also comes as the demand for ambulance service is growing, along with Orlando’s population. Since the OFD took over handling most of the city’s medical calls six years ago, call volumes are up 12 percent. Williams said the agency is forecasting an increase of 2.5 percent to 4 percent annually.
Adding 25 paramedics would cost $2.7 million a year, the agency said, about half the cost of adding the same number of firefighters. Salary and benefits for paramedics would start at $65,000; under their last contract, the package for firefighters started at $110,000, OFD said.
Glass said the department is cutting corners to the detriment of residents.
“I absolutely think they’re trying to find the cheapest way to provide the lowest level of service they can provide to the citizens right now,” he said.
Williams, however, noted that Orange County Fire Rescue already has civilian paramedics. He argued OFD’s new paramedics would serve a different function than firefighters, working shorter, targeted shifts during peak periods, such as weekend nights downtown, when medical calls surge.
The chief said having paramedics would decrease the burden on the agency’s firefighters, while giving the agency a new talent pipeline. Paramedics will be allowed to undergo training to become firefighters after a set period of employment, likely three years, he said.
“Right now, firefighters are running a lot of calls, and our goal is to make sure to reduce that workload,” he said.
The city has 11 ambulances and would not need to add any more, he said. Orlando added 12 firefighters in its current budget to better support southeast Orlando’s fast-growing Lake Nona area.
While funding for the new positions would have to be found in the city’s next budget and approved by the City Council, Williams has Mayor Buddy Dyer’s backing, said Heather Fagan, Dyer’s deputy chief of staff.
“Mayor Dyer does support this new deployment strategy in order to continue to provide the highest level of service and meet the needs of our rapidly growing city,” Fagan said.
The Orlando Fire Department has only been handling ambulance calls for about six years. Previously, the city relied on privately operated ambulances.
The move would decrease OFD’s reliance on American Medical Response, the private firm that handles about 30 percent of the city’s medical calls. That comes at no cost to the city, as AMR bills patients’ insurance companies directly for the service.
A spokeswoman for the company did not respond to requests for comment.
However, a fire department spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t plan to phase out using AMR and hopes to renew or extend its contract with the company, which is set to expire in January. Williams said AMR does “a great job” for the city.
Copyright 2017 Orlando Sentinel