Pittsburgh fire and EMS have run-down fleets and staffing issues, report shows

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Plus, looming retirements could shrink the police force.

 

by Charlie Wolfson, PublicSource

Pittsburgh’s public safety bureaus face urgent equipment and staffing needs, according to a comprehensive report on the state of the city government. 

The Bureau of Fire and the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services [EMS] each have aging vehicle fleets without significant reinforcements on the horizon. EMS employees are overworked with frequent 18-hour shifts.

The Bureau of Police, meanwhile, has more than 200 officers at retirement age and new officers won’t be fully trained until mid-2023 at the earliest.

The report was commissioned by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments* to provide a critical assessment of the city’s departments and agencies before the start of a new administration. The administration of former Mayor Bill Peduto opened itself up for interviews and analysis near the end of 2021, leading to detailed reports on 22 city divisions. 

Personnel

EMS is budgeted for 194 paramedics, EMTs and crew chiefs, but near the end of 2021, more than 30 employees were out of service for injury, sickness or family leave. The gaps caused others to work 18-hour shifts, which have “impacted morale and increased overtime pay.” Retention is reportedly a challenge for the bureau with employees often coming from outside the region and leaving again before long, the report said. 

Jonathan Atkinson, the paramedics’ union president, said in an interview with PublicSource that the number of employees out injured or sick has improved recently, but the bureau “absolutely” still needs more staff to curtail mandatory 18-hour shifts. He said it’s not uncommon for staff to work three consecutive 18-hour shifts with just six hours off between each.

“This is particularly challenging for people who have families and children,” Atkinson said. “When you start forcing people a bunch of times, they start looking for other options.”

He said former Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, who was dismissed by Mayor Ed Gainey at the start of his term, requested additional staffing for the 2022 budget, but it was not approved by Pittsburgh City Council. 

The budget was drafted by Peduto’s administration and Gainey has not made material changes or announced plans to do so since taking office at the start of 2022. The mayor’s office did not respond to questions related to this story.

The fire department faces not a crisis in staffing numbers, but in diversity. The report notes that of 656 employees, just four were women. The report attributed this in part to a physical test that prospective firefighters must pass; fire Chief Darryl Jones told the report’s authors that the test exceeds standards and “is not representative of the actual physical requirements” of being a firefighter. 

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