Cutbacks that will kill in Detroit

June 28, 2010

Sarah Levy reports on a struggle of emergency medical services workers in Detroit.

DOZENS OF Detroit paramedics protested June 25 because they want to be able to come to people's assistance quickly in case of an emergency--and proposed budget cuts would make that impossible.

Raising signs that read "Save us so we can save you," the paramedics withstood the 90-degree heat in order to raise awareness of budget cuts about to take place that will affect the safety of Detroit residents, as well as anyone who happens to pass through.

Alarmingly, 75 percent of the demonstrators had worked all night, their shifts having only ended at 7 a.m.--and they would be returning to another full night on the job at 7 p.m. "That's how big of an issue this is," said Tim Goodman, a paramedic of 15 years.

Paramedics are represented by the Detroit Emergency Medical Services Association, a union that formed last year to replace a union local affiliated with the Boilermakers' union.

The new union faces a major challenge. Detroit Fire Commissioner James Mack plans to cut 75 emergency medical technician (EMT) and paramedic positions from the Detroit Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Division as well as cut 33 active members. That cutback would leave only 12 ambulances on duty to cover the entire city of Detroit. As it stands, the city has only 24 ambulances available at any time--a number that paramedics say is completely inadequate.

EMS workers on the picket line in Detroit in a struggle for jobs
EMS workers on the picket line in Detroit in a struggle for jobs (Sarah Levy | SW)

"Some people are actually dying," said Kent Hammer, one of the protesting paramedics. "This can't go on." Hammer explained that the national standard for response time is four minutes--the time it takes for an untreated brain injury to leave permanent damage. "Our response time is already over 10 minutes," he said. "And that's [before the cuts] with 24 ambulances."

Detroit is larger geographically than the city of Chicago, although it is less populated. Chicago runs 62 paramedics at any given time--almost six times more than Detroit will be left with if the fire commissioner gets his way.

One of the paramedics said that he has had to drive more than 20 miles to get to a call, and that those in need are often forced to wait for over an hour.

There have already been many cuts that have hindered the ability of workers to respond to emergencies. Recently, five advanced life support units were reduced to basic units, making them less effective. The basic units include stretchers to transport people, but they aren't equipped with materials to actually treat them.

Goodman added that Detroit also lacks a first-response system that, in most cities, allows the fire department to come to the scene of an emergency before the ambulance can get there. "Sometimes calls are backed up for four hours, and we're left showing up hours after calls," said Hammer. "We've even had to take other forms of transportation."

THE PROPOSED ambulance cuts have shocked a city that has become numb to the harsh budget cuts driven by the economic crisis. Even police driving by the demonstration enthusiastically honked and shouted in support of the protesters--not a typical cops' reaction to street protests.

"The cops are in support of us because every time they call for us, we're not there," said Jim Atkinson, a paramedic of 14 years. "Even when we had 24 ambulances, there was one case--that wasn't out of the ordinary--where there was a man in critical condition with a spinal cord injury only four blocks away from Medic 17's quarters," he continued. "Even four blocks away, we didn't have anyone available, so the police had to put the man in their car [without any proper medical treatment or handling].

"Because the man wasn't handled properly, his spinal cord was permanently damaged. Now he'll never be able to walk again. If we had been able to reach him, we could have handled him correctly, and he could have been saved."

While a particularly ugly example, the proposed EMS cuts in Detroit reflect a budget crisis that is hitting states and cities across the nation, affecting everything from education to affordable housing. At the same time, corporations and bankers who benefited from government bailouts continue to rake in obscene profits and bonuses.

These upside-down priorities were clearly a source of anger among the protesters. "Lots of administration could be cut, as well as other things that aren't necessary," said Hammer. "But instead, they're cutting the things that are essential."

According to Goodman, the mayor put out a memo proposing cuts in administration as a way to balance the city's budget. Goodman said that there are 19 various administrative chiefs on duty at any time, who are paid lavishly but don't actually do anything tangible for the citizens of Detroit. Cutting spending on those positions could keep vital services like the EMS operating.

Instead, Detroit Fire Commissioner James Mack--who is in the position to make the final decision on the issue--has disregarded the mayor's proposal and is moving to cut the most necessary positions almost by half starting July 1. Although both the City Council and Mayor Dave Bing say they are opposed to the EMS cuts, neither has done anything to stand up to Mack.

"We think there's a deliberate misinformation campaign regarding where they want the cuts to come from," said paramedic Jesse Rangel. "The council proposed the cuts to areas that were not essential [but that's not what the fire commissioner is trying to do]." Rangel said he thinks the Detroit City Council is placing too much trust in the fire administration, and that in return, it is deliberately misleading the city administration.

Hence, the paramedics took it upon themselves to profile the issue to the community and media. Rangel said the paramedic union has given presentations to various religious groups in the city as well as other community groups. "People don't have any clue of how bad things are," he said.

It's hard to imagine how things could get much worse. Besides resulting in unnecessary deaths and forcing paramedics to work insanely long hours, the cuts make it so that any time off from work is emotionally burdened with the knowledge that people are dying because not enough EMTs are on call to save them. "The moral of the story is, when you're in town, be careful," said Rangel.

There is another moral to be gotten out of the story of the EMS cuts in Detroit: As long as profit is the driving force of society and carries the most weight in deciding what is necessary for a community, the lives of regular people will be disregarded.

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