Crying wolf

Ernest Sherman has been playing with fire, and the Dallas Fire Department is not pleased. In what his opponents call a carelessly worded press release, this trustee of the Dallas Police Patrolman's Union let the heated word go out last week: The fire department has a paramedic shortage. Twenty-nine, to be exact. That could send only one message to the citizens of Dallas: If you're on death's door, help may not come in time.

If Sherman wanted to get the public's attention, he succeeded. Soon, news of this shortage spread like wildfire, finding its way to both KTVT-Channel 11 and KDAF-Channel 33's nightly newscasts. Sherman also hit the radio. Same ominous message every time: The fire department, he said, is wholly unprepared to meet the demands of Dallas' growing population. In fact, he charged, its number of firefighters and paramedics--currently 1,543, according to a city spokeswoman--hasn't grown in the past decade, this in spite of the fact that the population has increased by an average of 6,400 a year.

All Sherman, a 10-year veteran of the police force, says he wanted to do was point out the gross mismanagement of Dallas by city officials--the same officials, he says, who have screwed his own department time and again with consistently low pay for police officers. Sherman's union has tried before to get the news out about city mismanagement and the need for a 15 percent pay raise for cops and has repeatedly pointed out the Dallas Police Department's high turnover rate, which can be largely attributed to low pay. The public never seemed all that interested. But everyone loves firefighters and paramedics. And because of a pay parity system, firefighters (who in Dallas are also trained as paramedics) and cops share similar salaries.

If there's one thing both departments have in common, it's low pay. Among the bigger cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Dallas ranks near the bottom of the list for starting police and firefighter pay.

Sherman denies releasing information on the fire department solely to draw attention to his union's requests for a pay raise for police officers. As he sees it, it would take more than a measly 15 percent raise to get the Dallas Police Department on track. Sherman says his motive was simply to shed light on a public safety issue, one that the city isn't addressing.

But Sherman's efforts have backfired. The fire department doesn't particularly want the help of a police officers' union in solving its problems. In fact, many in that department who got wind of Sherman's story said they don't appreciate his giving the public the impression that their department can't meet the city's growing need for emergency service.

The quality of the service hasn't changed because of a shortage, says Ray Padilla, a driver engineer with Station No. 18 on Griffin Street downtown, which is the busiest station in the city. "The shortage is solved by overtime," he says.

"They're getting into our business that they know nothing about," adds Lt. Michael Buehler, a 13-year fire department veteran who serves as a vice president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association. For citizens whipped into a panic by Sherman's news, Buehler has this to say: There is indeed a shortage, but come next week, that will change. Specifically, 37 new paramedics will come on board, straight out of 16 months of rigorous schooling that cross-trains them as firefighters and paramedics, says Barbara Block, a public information officer for the city.

Of course, Sherman is quick to point out that those rookies won't solve the problem permanently, that the department will continue--as it has for the last decade--to rely on overtime to fill personnel shortages. In October, three new ambulances will be added to the department's current 35, mainly because the city of Addison has decided to discontinue participation in the MICU automatic assistance program. (The fire department also has agreements with the cities of Carrollton, Plano, and Richardson to do emergency runs in some parts of Dallas.) Right now, there aren't enough paramedics to run those three new ambulances. "We may end up a couple [paramedics] short," says Block. But she adds that even if there aren't the desired five paramedics at all 54 fire stations (not all of which have ambulances), the department will come close.

The fire department has managed to get by in the past mainly through use of its voluntary overtime program. Sherman charges that overtime ends up costing the taxpayer far more than hiring new personnel would. Both Buehler and Ray Reed, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, disagree. "They don't understand the numbers," says Buehler about the Dallas Police Patrolman's Union.

As for the personnel shortage and the fact that the fire department hasn't grown in the last decade, the city has this to say: Big deal. "I think the response times are good," says Block, who points out that since 1991 ambulance response times have hovered around five minutes. And, she says, in the last 10 years the city has added two new stations in Dallas.

The city of Dallas has stated that its goal for the department's Emergency Medical Service unit is to respond to 80 percent of all emergency calls within six minutes. For Sherman, 80 percent isn't good enough. It should, he says, be 100 percent and nothing less.

"Obviously, our goal is to have as quick a response time as possible," Buehler says. "But you have to look at what the citizens of Dallas are willing to pay for."

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Lisa Singh
Contact: Lisa Singh