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Sounding alarm on Fire Department weaknesses

Updated: March 3, 2014 12:10PM



The Chicago Fire Department is a city agency the Better Government Association watches closely, and with good reason — emergency work saves lives when it’s done well, and imperils them when it’s not.

Our latest investigation of the CFD, which looked at lengthy ambulance response times, appears to be a prime example of the latter, and it cries out for immediate attention from the Emanuel administration before there’s a tragedy that could be prevented.

The BGA and CBS2 reported recently that, in January, a two-ton postal truck hit a woman right outside City Hall. It took 16 minutes for an ambulance to arrive — that’s 10 minutes longer than the state mandate of 6 minutes — even though the downtown area has several fire stations.

Thankfully, the woman survived her serious injuries, including broken bones, but the next person who has to wait 16 minutes for an ambulance might not be so “lucky.”

Last fall, the city’s inspector general took exception to CFD claims it was meeting response-time standards.

And our investigation revealed the department doesn’t even track ambulance response times in a meaningful way, so it’s hard to determine whether the situation is getting better or worse.

Paramedics tell us there’s a shortage of fully equipped Advanced Life Support — or ALS — ambulances, and that travel times are getting longer, which means slower responses.

But fire officials can’t validate or refute this since they don’t track response times month-to-month or year-to-year.

So they’re resorting to double-talk.

Here, in essence, is what they’re saying: They have enough ambulances, but might be getting more; they have enough paramedics, but plan to hire more; response times aren’t bad, but they have no real way of tracking them.

That’s hardly professional or reassuring, and it’s not the only problem we’ve uncovered at the CFD. Past investigations revealed a former fire commissioner’s dubious pension “sweetener,” the breakdown of an ambulance that was transporting a gunshot victim, paramedics taking a stabbing victim to the wrong hospital, and fire department vehicles carrying expired medications.

That’s why we’re suggesting the mayor’s top staffers sit down with fire officials to straighten things out, beginning with two life-and-death questions: Are there enough ALS ambulances on the street, and do they respond to calls quickly enough?

The answer to both questions appears to be “no.”

So one solution may be to convert some or all of the “basic life support” ambulances that handle relatively minor injuries to ALS vehicles that handle trauma cases.

That could add 15 trauma-ready ambulances to an operating fleet of about 60. Paramedics seem to like the idea, and the department is willing to consider it, which is encouraging.

Another idea worth exploring is a redistribution of equipment and resources. As the city’s population shifts, and the number of fire fatalities continues to drop — 2013 was an all-time low — maybe it’s time for fewer fire trucks and engines, and more ambulances.

Finally, it’s 2014. The department should be able to track ambulance dispatch and response times in a way that allows them, and watchdogs like the BGA, to analyze data.

Other big fire departments do this, so why not a “world-class city” like Chicago?

This column is designed to sound the alarm. Now it’s time for the fire department to answer the call ASAP.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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