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"Manpower issues" are hurting EMS services in Detroit

Josh Shanley Public Safety Multimedia/911.photography - stock.adobe.co

Like many cities across the country, Detroit is having a hard time finding enough emergency medical service personnel.

But Detroit firefighters' union leaders say leadership missteps have made the situation worse, and it’s hurting EMTs' ability to provide life-saving services in a timely way.

Right now, DFD leaders say the average response time to a life-threatening Code One 911 call is 8 minutes, 11 seconds — four seconds higher than last year, and just slightly above the national average.

But Tom Gehart, president of the Detroit Firefighters’ Association Local 344, said the problem isn’t the response time 911 calls; it’s the EMTs having to wait for an ambulance to arrive at the scene.

“It's the clock from when they get there, until we get the person to the hospital,” Gehart said. “And that comes from the lack of ambulances in service because of manpower issues.”

Detroit is in the process of fully integrating EMS employees into the fire department. That move is supported by all sides, but Gehart said it’s happening too slowly. He said that sluggish process, plus relatively low pay, is driving some Detroit EMTs to look for other jobs.

James Harris, DFD’s chief of community relations, said the department is doing what it can to improve the situation.

“We're working hard to do what's best for the citizens of Detroit,” Harris said. “We're hiring new people. We're doing everything. We're exhausting all measures.

“It's tough out there. Trying to find qualified workers is a little tough and it's very competitive, but we're constantly hiring.”

Harris said he thinks Detroit is “pretty much up to par” when it comes to emergency medical services, and has 22 to 24 ambulances on the street at all times. He said their eventual goal is to have 30 ambulances in full-time service, and the department is also making procedural changes to speed up EMS response time.

But Gerhart said that in the meantime, 30-50 employees a day are working overtime, and doing hundreds of runs every day. He said medics on scene experience a “no [ambulance] units available” response almost daily at this point.

“What’s happening a lot is we’re having no units available,” Gehart said. “So the fire engines are responding to give that care, and they’re doing CPR for 10, 15 minutes before an ambulance arrives.”

But despite that, firefighters and medics will keep “coming to assist” people in need, Gehart said. “They're coming in daily on overtime to keep the department running. And I just hope nothing's taken out on our responders as they're trying to render care and waiting for a transport unit.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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