Sacramento trains EMTs, but they can’t work in city ambulances

Sacramento Fire Department crews mop up after a fire destroyed a vacant warehouse on R Street in November 2015.
Sacramento Fire Department crews mop up after a fire destroyed a vacant warehouse on R Street in November 2015. Sacramento Bee file

It’s great that Mayor Darrell Steinberg, fire Chief Walt White and the local firefighters union announced new apprenticeships this week for the Sacramento Fire Department.

The program starts in early 2018 and will give 30 to 35 cadets the chance to earn certification as emergency medical technicians, plus help them apply to become a firefighter. Funded by $500,000 from the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, it offers free tuition and financial aid for child care and travel and is designed to diversify the pool of department applicants.

Yet this worthy program also highlights an issue that City Hall can’t afford to let slide any longer.

These newly minted EMTs wouldn’t be allowed to actually join the Fire Department and work in its ambulances – unless they become full-fledged firefighters. That’s because Local 522 has refused to budge on anything other than firefighters in every city ambulance.

The union’s contract with the city expires next June. As negotiations ramp up on a new deal, city officials must insist that putting paramedics or EMTs in ambulances is on the table. The savings from whatever change is made cannot be used up by salary and benefit increases.

Studies have repeatedly pointed out the problem: While medical emergencies account for about 60 percent of all service calls to the Fire Department, all 15 city ambulances are staffed by two “dual-role” firefighters who get paid a supplement for paramedic duty.

Deploying “single-role” paramedics instead would save about $400,000 a year for each ambulance. That’s works out to $6 million – nearly half the price tag of all the high-priority items the mayor and council were able to add to this year’s budget.

Also, the city auditor is sounding the alarm about the amount of overtime in the department – more than $13 million on top of $44 million in regular pay in 2015. As for safety concerns raised by Local 522, no problems occurred during an unplanned test during the first six months of this year of paramedics answering medical calls that otherwise would have been handled by city firefighters.

The facts point to the obvious – though politically risky – solution of at least one paramedic or EMT in ambulances.

Local 522, a major player in local elections, is advocating for its members. That’s its job.

But it’s the duty of Steinberg and the City Council to look out for taxpayers and residents and to see the bigger picture.

If Sacramento and other local governments in California can’t deliver services more efficiently, whenever the next recession hits – and it will – that will lead to deeper budget cuts. And unions and elected officials have to recognize that will be painful for firefighters and other public employees as well as residents and taxpayers.