Paramedics speak out against changes to Alexandria Fire response

WASHINGTON — Paramedics and firefighters lined up Saturday to ask the Alexandria City Council to bring salaries in line with other jurisdictions and to step in to block changes to the fire department that would change how the department responds to many medical calls.

The changes prepared by Chief Robert Dubé  that began last year aim to increase the number of calls where at least one person trained in advanced life support is among the first responders. Dubé says that cross training all paramedics as firefighters and using those firefighter/medics to increase staffing on fire engines and trucks will improve service.

While one of the cross-trained medics who spoke at Saturday’s city council meeting supported the change, other paramedics spoke against it, sometimes in very strong terms.

Brian Hricik, EMS operations manager, says that while the plan could work, there is no reason to destroy an EMS system rated as a “gold standard” by the American Heart Association.

“This is what we’re losing, the ability to focus on our chosen profession,” he said to the council.

“Would you want your child’s pediatrician to also be their school teacher, or would you want your heart surgeon to be your hair dresser?” he asked.

Others who spoke during the city council’s general public comment period argued that basic life support services that can be provided by firefighters are almost always the most important things in emergency situations. Speakers disputed the department’s projections that this plan would save money, compared to other ways of bringing the department to full recommended safe staffing levels.

Medic Nancy McFadden says one of the biggest losses when the entire department switches to the new system would be the lack of coordination between paramedics responding to a call. She says the ride over in the ambulance today allows the partners to form a treatment strategy.

“We talk about it right away–how we’re going to proceed, who’s going to perform what skill. When we arrive on the scene we already have a plan that’s already been laid out. We can do things without talking,” she says.

“The chief wants to take away that partnership, that communication. That preplanning, that teamwork that we have is going to be gone. It’s not a good plan for the citizens, it’s not a good plan for the patients, and it’s not a good plan for me or the medics in the Alexandria Fire Department,” she adds.

The Alexandria Professional Medic Association wants the city council to set up a committee to analyze the change. They are also opposed to the new pay for the paramedics that do train as firefighters, since it would be a 10 to 20 percent raise for about 30 percent more hours each year.

The association also put out questions about the fire department’s explanation of the change.

But Donald Scott, one of the 30 or so members of the Alexandria Fire Department who have begun or completed cross training, says he supports the move.

Scott, who served as a paramedic for the past 10 years, calls the new model “sound.”

“As a firefighter/paramedic, I care about the citizens that live here and visit … just because I can flow water and swing an ax now, I still provide good medical care,” he says.

Scott says he was speaking for himself and several colleagues.

Michael Johnson, a former Marine who lives in Alexandria but who does not work in the fire department, said he supports the plan because he believes having someone trained in advanced life support on a fire engine could have saved his father’s life in November 1992, when his father was hit by a car at Wythe and Patrick Streets.

“[A paramedic] could give medicine to that patient, which could save that person’s life. I don’t care if it’s one life saved by us placing paramedics on an engine, that life is worthwhile,” he says.

The paramedics groups say there is no evidence that adding a medic to a fire engine actually improves patient survival rates.

Firefighters are separately asking the city council to approve market-based pay raises and other raises as part of a “Years of Service Alignment Model” that would adjust salaries for several dozen people who are at a different pay level than others at similar ranks.

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