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Chicago firefighters plan protests at NASCAR, DNC events over paramedic, ambulance shortages

Chicago firefighters say paramedics are overworked and burned out due to low staffing
Chicago firefighters say paramedics are overworked and burned out due to low staffing 04:01

CHICAGO (CBS) – Chicago firefighters are calling out the city for not having enough ambulances and paramedics to safely serve the city, and they want that fixed as part of a new union contract.

They plan to protest at next week's NASCAR event, then outside of the Democratic National Convention.

CBS 2 Investigators found why their protests are tied to 911 calls for help. Two Chicago firefighters said the city needs more personnel because their paramedics are overworked.

"There are days everyday where the alarm office is saying, 'Is there an ambulance available? Is anybody available?" said Battalion Chief Patrick Cleary. "That's in the entire city, and then, in the meantime, they're calling on the engines and trucks to report to those scenes until an ambulance can get there."

Cleary is president of the firefighters union. Battalion Chief Tony Martin is the secretary of the firefighter's pension fund.

"The morale of the department is very low, you know, especially given the working conditions, the amount of overtime that some of these guys were working," Martin said.

They both said working conditions have gotten so bad that burnout is at an all-time high, especially for paramedics because there are not enough of them to handle all the 911 calls for emergency medical services.

On any given day, they said, "The medics are exhausted." Cleary said there is a shortage of paramedics.

They said hiring more paramedics needs to be the priority and they want a promise from the city written in a new union contract. They're also demanding pay raises because salaries have been frozen since 2021, making it even harder to find new recruits to join the department.

"We're not able to replace the medics as quickly as they're leaving the department," Martin said.

They and their fellow firefighters are planning to march in protest down Michigan Avenue during the upcoming NASCAR Street Race event next month. They're also planning to march in protest at the Democratic National Convention in August.

"I mean, it's not something that we look forward to, but I think it's something at this point in time, I think we have to do," Martin said.

In 2023, they said paramedics worked nearly 230,000 hours of overtime just to be able to staff the city's 80 ambulances, and they are on the same pace for 2024.

"You know, some of our medics are running 20, 25 runs a day," Martin said.

Cleary said just looking at paramedics making that many runs, "You're exhausted, no sleep. They go home for a day and come right back to the firehouse again."

They said as a policy, the fire department will send a fire truck or a fire engine to a medical emergency if there is no ambulance available. Of the city's 161 fire trucks and engines, 74 are supposed to have at least one paramedic on board to provide life-saving help and administer life-saving drugs on scene until an ambulance arrives. 

But they said there is such a shortage of paramedics and that the city often does not have any available. Records show on June 16, there were 12 fire trucks and engines that were supposed to have paramedics on board, but did not.

They call that a downgrade.

"That means that rig, which says on the side of it, 'paramedic equipped,' is not equipped with a paramedic for an entire 24-hour shift," Cleary said.

The firefighters said they've never seen staffing problems this bad. So, what does that do to firefighters' mental health?

"It just demonizes, you know, how they feel about work, coming into work," Cleary said. "They're upset. They're overworked, and now, they're treating patients. It's not good."

Cleary and Martin said they want more mental health counseling made available. They also want firefighters and paramedics to be given time off to grieve when they lose colleagues in the line of duty from the same firehouse.

When they march, they will be wearing shirts saying, "Stand with First Responders."

Mayor Brandon Johnson's Office and the Chicago Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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