In perhaps a bit of a misstep, given some painful recent history and that its members are about to enter into contract negotiations, North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714 took to social media last week to tout its decision to step into a breach and have a union firefighter staff the ambulance for a few hours after a contract paramedic went home sick.
The Facebook post was shared widely among those in the fire service and was also shared to one local Facebook group along with a message decrying the contract paramedic service’s ability to adequately staff the ambulance.
With the village’s administration feeling that its efforts to undo the damage of a years-long effort to privatize firefighting services might be working, the Facebook post went over like a lead balloon.
After some discussion between the administration and the fire union’s president, the post was amended to reflect that what had happened on Jan. 5 was an illustration of the good will and collaborative spirit that now exists between the two sides.
But the situation last week did get to the heart of the issue facing North Riverside and its fire department as it enters contract negotiations. No one is sure just how long the pandemic will linger, but as long as it does there likely will be an impact on the contract paramedic sector.
Fire department sources both in North Riverside and elsewhere have told the Landmark that the pandemic has limited opportunities for paramedic training, that enrollment in the ones that do exist is declining and that departments where contract paramedics are used have experienced quite a bit of staff turnover.
The goal for most, if not all, contract medics is to catch on full-time with a fire department where the pay and benefits are much better, not to mention a guaranteed pension.
North Riverside isn’t the only department that has had to call in their own firefighters on an overtime basis to staff ambulances due to a shortage of contract medics.
So, maybe this is the right time for North Riverside to re-evaluate its longtime policy of contracting out paramedic services. Its current contract runs through the end of 2024, and prior to that contract being extended in 2019, elected officials said they wanted to give in-house paramedics a long look.
It won’t be cheap to bring paramedic services under the fire union’s umbrella, and it certainly won’t help alleviate what’s already a crush when it comes to pension funding.
But the village has already shown signs that it might be time. About five years ago, the village started requiring new firefighter hires also to be certified paramedics, so that by now the department is well on its way to having all of its union firefighters paramedic certified.
Seems as if the path has already been forged. In the next couple of years, both the union and administration will need to work together to do the number crunching and negotiating to finally get this issue resolved.