A reprise of a familiar ritual just took place, with the Citizens Budget Commission advancing its evergreen argument that firehouses should be closed to save money and the fire unions parrying with a list of reasons why that’s a bad idea.
If anything, the unions’ argument has been strengthened over the past decade by the city’s continuing surge in population. This not only means there’s a greater need for fire service, there’s also—as anyone driving within the five boroughs can attest with exasperation—more traffic to cope with. Major arteries in Brooklyn and Queens, on weekdays as well as weekends, sometimes have the kind of bottlenecks once associated solely with Manhattan. What that means is that it’s harder to justify closing a firehouse because there are two others within a mile of it; the extra travel distance for what would have been a second- or third-due company can turn into blocs of minutes in situations where seconds can be the difference between life and death.
That doesn’t mean the CBC report is just another exercise in preaching impractical changes. It points out a continuing trend in which the Fire Department is responding to far more medical calls than to fires. A bit more than 80 percent of FDNY responses during 2017 were to medical calls; less than three percent were to fires.
Yet even as that trend has grown more pronounced, it is the Emergency Medical Service that has been plagued by high turnover. A big part of the reason is that EMS workers are not paid nearly as well as firefighters, and fringe-benefit disparities add to the compensation gap. Firefighters don’t merely get superior pension allowances to their EMS colleagues, they become eligible upon retiring with at least 20 years on the job for a $12,000-a-year Variable Supplements Fund payment not provided to EMS staff.
It is relatively routine to see entire classes entering the Fire Academy off a special promotion list after passing an exam that only EMS workers can take. EMS union leaders lament that many members leave just when they’re perfecting their craft once they get the opportunity to become Firefighters, and that it’s easy to understand given the financial advantages.
The compensation gulf, as we’ve noted before, is largely based not on the duties of the two jobs but the reality that EMS figuratively got to the table late, after salary relationships were being essentially codified in the early days of municipal collective bargaining a half-century ago. At that time, EMS was under the Health and Hospitals Corporation and lacked a long tradition of unions lobbying hard for pay and benefit improvements while acquiring the clout that made elected officials respect their demands.
The pitfalls this created, not just for EMS employees but for the city from an operational standpoint, became clearer after EMS became part of the FDNY in the mid-1990s. Then-Uniformed Firefighters Association President Tom von Essen quickly grasped that having his members respond to medical calls at a time when structural fires were declining offered some protection against periodic calls to close firehouses, but many of his troops resisted. That resistance turned to outrage when he left the UFA to become Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Fire Commissioner, with some accusing him of selling them out to get the job.
But the imbalance between medical calls and fire responses continued to grow, while it simultaneously became clearer that the huge gap in compensation between Emergency Medical Technicians and Firefighters was not merely unjust but bad public policy. A couple of decades ago, FDNY and union officials spoke of a time when the city would combine the two jobs, as is the case in some other cities, so that those who held it would have to be adept in both disciplines, and that would be how the transition to equal compensation would be accomplished.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps as an unexpected consequence of the toll 9/11 took on the department, that idea lost momentum. That has had the effect of perpetuating the injustice EMTs face in comparison to all other city uniformed workers that goes back to their not being in the group for which salaries were closely linked.
About a decade ago, the City Council tried to narrow the gap by passing a bill over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto giving EMS personnel uniformed status. But the then-Mayor argued that the new law didn’t entitle them to salary or pension parity with the city’s other uniformed forces, leaving the EMS unions to try to make up ground through the slow, arduous process of winning arbitration cases. Their task is further complicated by being part of District Council 37, making them just two of the 50 locals for which it negotiates—in contrast to the autonomous unions for other uniformed workers, which don’t have to subvert their interests for the overall good of a larger bargaining unit.
There is no quick, easy solution. But city officials, who see the same numbers the CBC cited, have to be cognizant that the imbalance shouldn’t continue growing.
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