Detroit firefighters lag in medical training

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • The current contract requires the city’s 838 firefighters to become first responders.
  • Eight of the fire department’s 47 companies are now handling basic first aid duties.
  • A third of city firefighters have failed the National Emergency Medical Technicians’ responder exam.

Efforts to cross-train city firefighters as first responders are behind schedule, but Detroit officials say they expect all will be trained by the end of the year.

One year into a contract that requires the city’s 838 firefighters to become first responders, eight of the force’s 47 companies are now handling basic first-aid duties. Last year, Executive Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins said he wanted all trained by now in an effort to cut emergency response times that have been a problem for years.

“This is a big culture change for the Fire Department, and overall, I think, it’s going outstanding,” Jenkins said.

Detroit is the last major city in the nation to cross-train its firefighters. Jenkins said he pushed back his timetable to hire 153 cadets last year, but hopes to have another two companies ready to serve as first responders by August.

Also, 33 percent of all Detroit firefighters have failed the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians’ responder exam, which is required to initiate basic care such as taking vitals and using defibrillators until paramedics arrive. It’s a lower certification than emergency medical technicians or paramedics, who can offer more extensive aid.

Jenkins said he’s not discouraged by the rate of failure, which isn’t much worse than the national average of about 25 percent. Union president Jeff Pegg said the transition is going as well as can be expected since it requires extra work and doesn’t come with more pay.

“I know it’s not an easy course to pass,” said Pegg, president of Detroit Fire Fighters Association Local 344.

“The problem is we are a busy fire department and you are adding more work to us. Of course, there is going to be grumbling ... It’s a new responsibility and work. It’s a tough spot.”

Cross-training is one of several measures the city is introducing to reduce emergency medical services response times. Early last year, they averaged 19 minutes. Last week, they were 9 minutes and 58 seconds, the first time in many years they’ve been below the 10-minute threshold. Mayor Mike Duggan has said his goal is to reduce response times to the national standard of 8 minutes.

Firefighters have done double duty in most cities and suburbs for 15 years or more.

“It just makes sense. Fire stations are strategically placed to respond to emergencies where a few moments that are the most important and can be the difference between life and death,” said Richard Marinucci, deputy director of fire services for Northville Township and past president of the Southeastern Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.

Detroit’s fire department is one of the busiest in the nation, averaging some 10,000 blazes per year and regularly leading the nation in per capita arson rates. The new requirements follow a 10 percent wage cut, benefits reductions and other concessions.

Three firefighters who spoke to The Detroit News said many feel overworked and are reluctant to take on more duties after years of sacrifices. One said that half his class flunked the first responder exam, while another said others are uninterested. They did not want to be identified because Fire Department policies forbid workers from speaking to the media.

Jenkins said firefighters are embracing the change.

“If you look back a year ago, no firefighters were performing emergency responses,” he said. “Now, we have 141 actively taking runs.”

The contract requires all firefighters to become first responders by 2016. It allows for suspensions of those who aren’t certified by then, but Pegg said discipline is unlikely.

Firefighters who fail the multiple-choice, 90-minute test can take the two-week class twice under the contract. Before they are certified, firefighters also must accompany paramedics on three 12-hour ride-alongs.

Pegg said the contract can be reopened once more firefighters are cross-trained. If that happens and wages increase, more firefighters will embrace the change, Pegg predicted. Until then, the new duties are a fact of life, he said.

“I didn’t sign up for it when I got hired,” he said. “That’s what a lot of guys are having trouble with. It’s very understandable. This is extra work and they have companies that are closed and department needs to hire more people and they need to get better equipment.”

Twitter: @cityhallinsider