What follows are my positions on a host of issues that are of concern to firefighters and paramedics.
I recognize the overriding issue of firefighter staff reductions and fire station closings creates anxiety among Chicago Fire Department members. While no mayoral candidate can in good conscience guarantee he/she will never close another station or recommend changes in staffing levels, it will be my priority to accomplish savings without jeopardizing firefighter health or safety.
With this in mind, my comprehensive long-term plans DO NOT include fire station closings or firefighter staff reductions. I will instead work with CFD to find ways to improve efficiencies, secure public and private funding to which CFD is entitled and monetize the department by extending income-generating services to private entities.
The issue of protecting the pensions of current and future retirees is also of utmost importance. Fulfilling pension obligations is a constitutional mandate, which means funding retirement takes precedence in any financial crisis. I have a plan that enables the City to meet the pension obligations of ALL our current and future retirees and meets the State’s pension funding mandate.
Of all the issues facing CFD, none are more important than the issue of firefighter and paramedic health and safety. Concern over the occurrence of occupational cancer has been mounting for several years. The incidence of certain cancers in firefighters is well documented in literature and recently a federal mandate was passed to maintain accurate records countywide.
As Mayor of the City of Chicago I will ensure that CFD fully adheres to all National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and other national standards regarding cancer prevention for firefighters and paramedics. This will include instituting serious steps to minimize cancer in fire fighters.
The CFD has yet to implement many of these steps. The fact that Firefighters have only one set of bunker gear and paramedics have none places CFD employees at risk. Once gear is contaminated, the process of having a vendor take it off site for cleaning is time-consuming and laborious. The result is that most members wind up working with dirty gear. It is unacceptable that this situation persists.
This will change under my watch.
What follows are my plans to address priority CFD issues, as identified by current CFD staff.
1. Develop A Comprehensive Plan To Improve Firefighter And Paramedic Health And Safety And Minimize Cancer Risks
Below are the specific steps I will take to address and reduce the growing incidence of cancer among CFD staff that has occurred as a result of inadequate gear and cleaning regimens:
- Ensure constant replacement and upgrades of protective personal equipment (PPE). This includes Bunker Gear (coats and pants), hoods, gloves, boots, etc.
- Maintain duplicate sets of PPE to ensure a clean set is always available.
- Implement a five-year replacement cycle for all PPE; ten-year replacement cycle for helmets.
- Perform a comprehensive assessment of the state of all PPE every six months.
- Provide advanced cleaning systems for contaminated bunker gear at each firehouse, as well as immediate washing at the scene to prevent contamination of vehicle interiors.
- Strictly enforce NFPA standards as if they were a governing body.
- Make available wipes and other cleaning materials to immediately clean exposed skin at the scene.
- Immediately clean all equipment, apparatus and interiors after each event.
2. Develop A Regular Exam Schedule And Give Priority To Time-In-Grade For Promotions
The most recent examination for lieutenant was given in 2009, almost nine years ago! It took until 2013 to post the test results, and since that time, the only pool from which to draw lieutenant candidates has been that list – a list that is down by more than 50 percent as a result of promotions over the past five years.
The most recent captain’s exam was given in the Spring of 2017. There was no indication when the results would be posted, and it was not until October 2018 that candidates learned their scores.
The most recent battalion chief’s exam was given in 2016. Results have only recently been posted. There are reportedly close to 50 battalion chief positions currently unfilled.
The engineer’s exam was given in 2016. The results were just posted and a small group has been promoted, although an “error” has been discovered in the grading. There were close to 200 engineer vacancies prior to the results being posted.
Though there are minimum qualifications for all other CPD positions, there are no minimum requirements to be deputy district chief. That is because this exempt rank is an appointed position.
Infrequent exams and the promotion of less-than-qualified individuals is neither good for morale nor the developing highly competent staff.
- Administer every exam for every position on three-year intervals. (If necessary, due to dire financial conditions, time periods could potentially be extended to four years.)
- Institute a system that replicates New York’s, with exam results posted within days rather than years.
- Be fully transparent when it comes to weighted questions on the exams.
- Be open to entering a discussion with the union regarding the role of seniority in exam scoring to ensure fairness for all members.
3. Address The Issue Of Vacancies To Avoid Fatigue And Save On Overtime Costs
In years past there was a lot of media attention given to the amount of overtime paid to the uniformed service members of the City of Chicago. Curiously, this attention has disappeared even as overtime in the CFD has skyrocketed. Battalion chiefs regularly work extra shifts of 24 hours and many have not had a regularly scheduled day off (the so-called “Daley Day”) in months.
Due to the shortage of exempt deputy district chiefs (DDCs) mentioned above, some DDC’s are working 96-hour (four 24 hour) shifts. This is unconscionable and dangerous.
The situation regarding the rank of engineer is much more dramatic. There were reportedly 180 engineer vacancies in 2017 and 2018. The result was engineers working triple shifts – in many cases 72 hours in a row – and rumors abounded about engineers being among the highest paid members of the CFD, earning in excess of $250,000.
With the recent posting of engineer exam results, this specific issue may diminish in the near future. However, net overtime for all firefighters continues to increase due to lack of hiring. This is the result of poor planning by CFD and the Department of Personnel, and is likely costing the City millions.
- Develop a comprehensive plan to fill critical vacancies, which will reduce dangerous firefighter fatigue and overtime costs.
4. Fill The Exempt Ranks At CFD And Remove Disincentives Associated With Moving To These Positions
There currently exist over 25 vacancies in the higher ranks of CFD. These are all appointed positions that have gone unfilled due primarily to a reduction of benefits – including elimination of retiree healthcare for exempt ranks. Because of this, staff turn down promotions and many have even taken voluntary demotions to battalion chief. This is because the position of battalion chief is covered by the Local 2 union contract. By contrast, accepting an exempt promotion from battalion chief to deputy district chief can result in a reduction in salary, loss of furlough picks and the aforementioned medical benefits.
- Remove the disincentives associated with exempt rank positions and ensure promotions are based on qualification.
5. Implement A Long-Term Vehicle And Equipment Maintenance And Replacement Plan
Since the early 2000s, the replacement and upkeep all CFD equipment has been under the complete control of Fleet and Facilities Management (2FM), and the condition of the equipment has gone steadily downhill since that time. In fact, going back to the early 1950’s, CFD has allowed its fleet to deteriorate to the point that only a complete – and extremely expensive – replacement can resolve the issue. The City has engaged several consultants over the past decades to analyze CFD’s operations, and every report has urged the department to develop a planned replacement program in order to avoid costly, large-scale purchases.
As stated in one such 1999 report prepared by Tri Data: “The normal life expectancy for first line fire apparatus will vary from city to city, depending on the amount of use of the equipment and the adequacy of the maintenance program. In general, a 10-15-year life expectancy is considered normal for first line pumping engines and 15 years for first line ladder trucks. In some areas of high fire frequency, a limit of only 10 years may be reasonable for first line service. (The National Fire Protection Handbook, 18th. Edition).”
CFD currently has approximately 96 land engine companies and 60 ladder or truck companies. At the present time, 41 (42.7 percent of) engine companies and 37 (61.67 percent of) ladder companies are more than 15 years old. A major apparatus purchase occurred in 2002 and purchases since then have been sporadic at best. Four engine companies in front line service were purchased prior to 2000. Thirty of the 60 ladders were purchased in 2002.
The Tri Data study recommended a minimum of 10 pumping engines, six ladder companies and one tower ladder, along with miscellaneous other equipment, be purchased every year. Except for the massive purchases in 2002 and a significant purchase in 2006, this recommendation has not been followed by 2FM.
The situation regarding equipment is nearing a crisis, with the spare fleet composed primarily of equipment purchased in the early to mid-90’s. A spare tower ladder that is still in use dates from 1985 – 33 years ago – and does not meet current safety standards.
Annual testing of aerial ladders is required by NFPA and ISO. CFD has not abided by this schedule, and as a result it is only a matter of time until there is a failure. This could very likely result in additional damage and injury costs that have not been captured in any consultant report.
- Purchase enough ambulances and ensure enough EMS-trained personnel to minimize the use of fire engines for EMS runs.
- Create a committee to develop specifications for, and make recommendations on, selecting, maintaining and replacing CFD equipment. The committee will develop long- and short-term plans to address immediate and future fleet needs.
- End the practice of bonding to pay for fire department equipment and instead use Equipment Notes, which is a more appropriate form of funding.
6. Train CFD Personnel To Handle Psychiatric Emergencies And Provide Mental Health Services To First Responders
The closing of several mental health clinics throughout Chicago has left many people without proper care. This has increased the burden on, and risks to, EMS and other city public safety personnel who are not sufficiently trained to deal with individuals with serious mental health issues.
CFD EMS responds to an average of 25,000 psychiatric emergencies per year, but the department has failed to implement the same crisis intervention and psychiatric emergency training for its members that the Chicago Police Department has recently begun.
The most recent mayor’s budget office has again failed to allocate much-needed funding for this training.
In addition, despite the often-traumatic experiences they regularly encounter, there are inadequate services available to CFD personnel for the social/emotional and mental challenges that can result from their work.
- Develop and implement a plan to ensure that all firefighters and EMS have PTSD counseling and support.
- Establish a comprehensive and ongoing training program to help paramedics and other public safety personnel deal with patients who have serious and sometimes dangerous mental health issues.
7. Prioritize Funding Ems Services And Maximize Income-Generating Opportunities
The City failed to add additional ambulances to the CFD fleet despite a shortage that contributes to lengthy response times and places the public at risk. This was a decision made as an act of political retribution. Reportedly this dearth of emergency vehicles occurred because a small group of CFD paramedics contributed money to candidate Chuy Garcia’s 2015 mayoral campaign.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel placed citizens at risk for payback to paramedics. In addition to this political retribution, EMS faces a litany of other problems, largely caused by mismanagement:
- There are a limited number of EMS personnel because CFD caps the age at which firefighters can be cross-trained for EMS at 38.
- There is no preference given to hiring already-certified EMS candidates for open CFD positions.
- There is a failure to collect revenue generated by CFD ambulances. CFD has been unable to recover more than 37 percent of its billable revenue.
- There is a failure of the CFD to implement a Community Home Health Program despite empirical evidence demonstrating it significantly increases the quality of life for patients while also reducing the use of 911 and emergency room services. This program could be an income-generator which could then be invested in additional EMS ambulances and crews.
- There is a failure by CFD to charge for biohazard clean-up after a motor vehicle accident. This has been a significant source of revenue for several other fire departments nationwide for many years. CFD has failed to adapt.
- CFD has forgone other income-generating opportunities because it does not have the means to compete with private EMS providers that offer services to private events such as concerts, festivals, sporting events, etc.
- Create within CFD a Bureau of EMS Services with an EMS Commissioner, like other cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston. The Bureau will set priorities, develop EMS budget recommendations and manage EMS services.
- Address the inadequacies of the position of “Paramedics in Charge” which would include testing for the position and a pay raise commensurate with its responsibilities.
- Enter into lease agreements with companies to secure and expand the number of modern ambulances available to the CFD EMS unit.
- Immediately lift the age limit of 38 on the training of EMS personnel, expand cross-training and target firefighter candidate recruits who are already EMS qualified.
- Establish an EMS Special Operations unit that will respond to active shooter calls and any calls involving violence or possible violence.
- Introduce full-time EMS Special Operations motorcycle teams to determine if paramedics on motorcycles have value.
- Expand EMS income-generating services by establishing a Community Health Center program to provide federally reimbursable health services to indigent and isolated communities.
- Require that City-supported private events like Lollapalooza, sporting events, etc. use City EMS services when available and feasible.