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In Focus: Baltimore City Fire Department in need of more paramedics

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 29, 2021

BALTIMORE — Right now, there are dozens of vacancies in the Baltimore City Fire Department. There are openings for 34 paramedics and 14 EMTs.

"We’re steadily losing members in EMS," said Rich Langford, Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 President.

He said the department is overworked and understaffed. Langford explained how members have left because of a medical reason, it was time to retire, or they just couldn't deal with the working conditions like the call volume or staffing.

He added, "It's just becoming overwhelming. We’ve relied on overtime for many, many years to cover these holes, but our members are at the point of breaking right now. They cannot deal with this any longer."

Two former paramedics with the department told us about their experience. They didn't want to release their names because they now work for different agencies.

One was a paramedic for BCFD for five years. She said, "the medic units are in constant disrepair. I never got off work on time from relief trains. Staffing is a nightmare. Partners are split too often." Plus, the "call volume is too high to be sustainable and safe. Firefighters work all day then get put on a medic for night work and that is super unsafe."

Another paramedic, who left after two years, had similar complaints. She said, "the working conditions are horrible... firehouses, apparatus, and equipment. The insane call volume." Plus, she said firefighters working on a medic at night is unsafe. She said, "especially after a 3-alarm fire dayside and being told you’re driving a busy medic at night, and I look over and they’re falling asleep at a stop light."

Langford explained, "A member could be working ten hours during the day on their engine dealing with a variety of calls, fires, training or whatever and then they have to go drive a medic unit for 14 hours at night."

Blair Adams, the Public Information Officer for the Baltimore City Fire Department, explained how all firefighters are cross-trained and can be pulled to work on a medic.

"We understand our staff may be overworked but we’re in a major city. There’s a lot going on. We run over 100,000 calls per year," said Adams. She added, "and our EMS unit is one of the busiest EMS divisions per capita."

She stressed even with being down paramedics/EMTS and having to move firefighters around, it doesn't impact service to the city. They still meet the required number of workers per day, 312: 232 firefighters and 80 EMS.

The department has 36 medic units total. 26 of those units are 24/7. The other ten are peak units, which run from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Those are staffed by overtime workers, two people per unit. On average in July, they've only had four peak medic units a day.

"We don’t require anyone take overtime or accept overtime however it is out there. It’s available for those who want to take advantage of that opportunity," said Adams.

In August, they're repurposing two of the peak medic units and making them full time units. So, they'll have 28 24/7 medics to help with the call volume, which firefighters will help staff.

Baltimore Fire Department Document

"There's no breaks on the medic. It's one run after the next," said Langford. That's something WMAR-2 News Reporter Erin MacPherson saw firsthand, an ambulance parked at a station and then immediately had to go back out.

When an ambulance can't get to a scene right away, an engine will go. They can assist a patient until a medic can arrive to transport them to the hospital.

Last July, we did a story with a man who overdosed and was saved by crews on a medic. He said, “I was basically flatlined and they brought me back.”

That instance was Engine 55 in Pigtown. This time last year, Baltimore City Budget Cuts were going to put Engine 55 and Engine 4 out of service.

"It’s a huge issue. It’s a huge domino effect and taking any companies out of the mix is not a good thing," said Langford.

Firefighters took to the streets to keep these engines open. The engines are open but not on the city's dime. The fire department is paying for it.

"That money needs to be restored. Mayor Scott said he would restore those when he took office and we hope he follows through with that," said Langford.

During the protests, Mayor Scott, then Council President, stood with the fire department. When we reached out to the Mayor's Office now, we got the below statement back:

"The Mayor’s Office is awaiting the final study from the Fire Department before making any decisions about closures and remains focused on avoiding any disruptions in service for Baltimore residents. At this time, the Engine companies will remain operational."

Adams stressed how they're still waiting for the results from the study too. The used an outside agency to conduct the study.

As for the medics, the department is working to fill those positions. On July 21, they had a new class start with 13 EMTs and 5 paramedics. Right now, they're recruits and will take four to nine until they're ready to staff medic units. In August, 15 EMT firefighters are being sworn into the BCFD.

"We move as promptly as we can however maintaining that efficiency to make sure we get the right candidates to serve this community in," said Adams.

To prevent this level of understaffing again, Langford wants a campaign to recruit even more members.

"We have to get some type of EMS staffing level about what we need every day. We need to build in extra people." said Langford. He also wants an educational campaign about when to call 911. He said, "if we can take the call volume down, it would make us better providers.

Langford explained how they take every call seriously but not all are emergencies. He says some could be just a regular doctor's visit.

In the first half of 2020, data from the city shows the non-emergency calls where more than half of other calls. When looking at this graph, the yellow is non-emergency calls.

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COVID drastically changed the type of calls and volume but now the call volumes are high once again. You can help by only calling 911 in the event of emergency.

You can also call one of the non-emergency lines, 311 or 211. 311 is for residents who assistance with smoke alarms or pest control. 211 is for residents to receive citywide or statewide resources.