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.
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.
“If the physical test is not practical and serves only to prevent the hiring of female applicants, otherwise eligible to join the Bureau, the test needs to be changed,” the report said.
Ralph Sicuro, the president of the firefighters union, said in an interview with PublicSource that changes to the test could be made to allow candidates to understand and prepare for the test better beforehand.
Department of Public Safety spokesperson Cara Cruz told PublicSource that the chief does not know who designed the current test but the bureau may soon switch to a standard test used by departments nationwide.
The report also cites the city’s residency requirement as a challenge for the fire department. An arbitrator ruled last week that the city must lift the requirement, though that decision could be appealed.
Sicuro said applications for the fire department have steadily declined over the last two decades. Having a smaller applicant pool makes it harder to improve diversity, he said.
“I think the city needs to look at recruiting and see that obviously something isn’t working,” Sicuro said. “We are hopeful that the new administration will work with us to find ways to increase the overall number of applicants so therefore we can increase our diversity.”
The report’s chapter on the Bureau of Police says shift coverage could become a concern with “officers leaving but not being replaced.” There were no new recruits in 2021 due to COVID and budget constraints, Cruz told PublicSource. There are more than 260 officers over retirement age in the department, almost 30% of the force.
The police union president, Robert Swartzwelder, told PublicSource there are no recruits currently in the 18-month training process, and that the previous administration “set the Gainey administration up for failure” by not recruiting enough officers. He said the department had 879 officers as of Feb. 2, and officers work between 40 and 100 overtime shifts daily.
He said 17 officers have resigned or retired so far in 2022, and he is concerned that more of the 267 retirement-age officers could follow. “If I’m a risk manager, I can’t rely on them staying,” Swartzwelder said. “I have to be prepared … to cover that, in case that number dissipates.”
Councilman Anthony Coghill, while interviewing Gainey’s nominee to lead the Department of Public Safety, said last week that a looming drop in officer numbers is a “concern” of his. The nominee, acting Director Lee Schmidt, said a comprehensive study is needed to determine the ideal number of officers for Pittsburgh and that there is a recruiting class budgeted for this year.
The report notes that the city’s fleet of ambulances is aging, and EMS has to use reserve vehicles on a regular basis.
“I now need nine ALS ambulances for 2023 at almost three million dollars” to keep a standard fleet, wrote EMS Chief Ronald Romano in an email to the consultants who wrote the report. “Frontline fleet continues to age and increase in mileage, and the spare trucks age also, causing breakdowns and prolonged out-of-service time while switching.”
Cruz clarified that the EMS bureau typically receives three ambulances per year but none were ordered for 2021 or 2022, so the bureau will need nine in 2023 to account for the backlog.
The city’s 2022 capital budget, approved by city council and Peduto in December, includes one “special event ambulance” and two “remounts,” which restore aging ambulances. Romano wrote to the report authors that three new ambulances are needed annually.
City Councilman Corey O’Connor, the chair of the public safety committee, told PublicSource he proposed an amendment to add an ambulance to the 2022 budget, but it was not added to the final budget.
Atkinson said relying on older ambulances means that when spare ambulances are put into service, they are less comfortable for the patient and staff, with poorer suspension, heating and cooling. He said that after a relatively new ambulance was totaled in a July crash in Shadyside, the crew is still operating out of a reserve truck, seven months on.
Jones, Pittsburgh’s fire chief, also told the report authors he is concerned about the city’s emergency vehicle fleet. He said at least five of the department’s frontline fire trucks (not including reserves) are more than 11 years old, and that the bureau would prefer frontline trucks to be newer than 10 years old. The 2022 budget includes money for two new pumper trucks, paid out of the city’s American Rescue Plan trust fund.
Sicuro said the fire department lacks a robust set of reserve trucks, and all of its reserve trucks were in use when he spoke to PublicSource last week. Sicuro said breakdowns during emergencies are rare but become more likely as vehicles age.
“Our lives depend on these equipment operating properly at a structure fire,” Sicuro said. “The last thing you want is to be deep into a building, and the pumper you’re using to pump water breaks down and you have to get out of there quickly.”
The report did not flag equipment issues in the Bureau of Police. In fact, the city’s 2022 capital budget includes money for 33 patrol SUVs worth more than $1.8 million. Nine of the SUVs, worth more than $500,000, will be paid for out of the city’s American Rescue Plan funds that were earmarked broadly to the Equipment Leasing Authority.
O’Connor said public safety equipment will be “a conversation” moving forward.
“We’re going to have to start investing in these public safety vehicles, whether that’s reopening the  budget or during the next budget season,” O’Connor said.
*PublicSource receives funding from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
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