NJ city FFs to respond to life-threatening EMS calls; union says more training needed

Newark's fire and police unions raised concerns about training, equipment and compensation related to the new response plan


Rebecca Panico
nj.com

NEWARK, N.J. — Newark firefighters will be dispatched to all life-threatening calls beginning this weekend, officials announced Friday — a change that prompted the city’s fire and police unions to raise concerns about training, equipment and compensation.

University Hospital will continue to provide ambulance services to the city, but firefighters will also be dispatched in life-threatening situations.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (right) speaks at a press conference about a new initiative that will send firefighters to life-threatening EMS calls.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (right) speaks at a press conference about a new initiative that will send firefighters to life-threatening EMS calls. (Photo/Rebecca Panico, NJ Advance Media)

“We’re adding that on to the police officers and the EMS workers that already respond because we know that time is of the essence in those types of emergencies,” said Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara. “We just want to be certain we’re using every resource available so we can save as many lives as possible.”

University Hospital’s EMS respond to more than 100,000 calls per year and has a staff of 250 EMTs, paramedics and dispatchers, according to the agency.

Newark Firefighters Union President Kevin Simpson said the additional responsibilities aren’t something his members can’t complete. He’s not against the policy either, which came in an order about two days ago, but he said it was never negotiated with the union.

“We don’t have a problem doing our job as long as we’re compensated,” Simpson said. “But then the question now is proper training, proper equipment. Who is going to do the training?”

Newark Fire Officers Union President Anthony Tarantino had similar concerns. He said, flat out: “This is dangerous.”

“Even though the fire (department) will always respond to an emergency — whether fire or medical — this sudden change in policy was not negotiated and we haven’t received training to provide the service to the citizens of Newark,” Tarantino said. “I implore the mayor and public safety director to contact the unions to negotiate the terms and provide the proper training before this service is offered to the citizens.”

O’Hara said the baseline training for all firefighters certifies them as “first responders” and insisted they have the training and equipment. Newark Fire Chief Rufus Jackson said all firefighters learn CPR and know how to use defibrillators.

“We’re using them more towards what they are actually trained and equipped to do,” O’Hara said when asked about the unions’ concerns. “They have aid bags on all the apparatus, they have the oxygen. They actually have defibrillators as well.”

He specified that firefighters would not respond to something like a baby delivery, but they would likely respond to a person having a heart attack. A copy of the order about the new policy showed that firefighters wouldn’t respond to emotional disturbances or non-emergency situations.

Newark’s firehouses already serve as neighborhood first aid stations, which provide basic care for minor injuries like cuts, bloody noses or splinters. The service is available 24/7.

The public safety director, who took the helm a few months ago, said he’s not concerned that response times for fire emergencies will slow under the new plan. He said the department is working with University Hospital to evaluate the policy on a monthly basis.

O’Hara also issued a new order on Thursday that requires city police to render aid to gunshot or stab wounds and transport victims to the nearest accredited trauma center when EMS is delayed or unavailable.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 12 President James Stewart was unaware of any issues with University Hospital’s EMS response times. He was concerned that transporting patients in the back seat of a cop car could open up the department to liabilities.

“We don’t have the capability to backboard people,” said Stewart, adding that the new order was never negotiated with the union. “I don’t know how this is going to be beneficial.” O’Hara said policy prohibits officers from transporting victims via backboard, and that officers only transport victims under certain circumstances.

O’Hara said this new program will improve community relations since residents believed cops didn’t care when a person was shot. But, he said, cops were simply not trained or able to help.

“The issue of responding to emergencies is not negotiable as members of the Department of Public Safety have rendered first aid during medical emergencies for decades,” O’Hara added in a statement. “...When seconds count, we will not allow a person to die on the street awaiting medical care while fully trained firefighters are nearby and available with life-saving equipment.”

In a statement, University explained that Newark first responders may be asked to perform basic first aid or bleeding control before its EMS professionals arrive. The hospital doesn’t expect its EMS will respond to fewer calls under the new plan.

“University Hospital is excited to be partnering with the Newark Department of Public Safety,” the hospital said in a statement. “As part of this initiative, police officers and firefighters have been trained by University Hospital educators in life-saving skills.

“Over the last three years, the City of Newark partnered with University Hospital after receiving a grant that assisted in covering the expenses of time, materials and training.”

University Hospital Emergency Medical Services Associate Director Joseph Burlew said during the press conference that his agency worked on the plan for months with the public safety department and fire division.

However, fire union officials told NJ Advance Media they just learned of the plan this week. Tarantino, the fire officers union president, said he was unaware of any grant or training. The order pertaining to the new fire division policy said two hours of medical training will be provided to firefighters each month.

Mayor Ras Baraka said he supports the changes.

“The firefighters are already trained, they know exactly what it is that needs to happen,” the mayor said. “They can respond not only to incidents that take place in the city, but they can have their stations be used as opportunities to help people before EMS can get to the scene.”

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