When Richard Guzman arrives at one of the emergencies for which he has trained as a New York City rescue medic, he often works side by side with firefighters from the FDNY’s special operations command. Their objectives are the same as his: to save lives in challenging situations, like helping people trapped under subway cars or at mortal risk in places that can only be accessed by being lowered on a rope. “We work hand in hand with them,” Guzman says of the firefighting crew. “There is no difference in the danger level.”
But there is a difference in the pay. A firefighter’s base salary reaches $85,000 after five years of service. An FDNY paramedic’s base pay tops out at $61,500. Maximum base salary for FDNY emergency medical technicians (EMTs), who provide lower levels of medical care, is $47,685.
And, according to the unions representing the city’s emergency medical service (EMS) members and officers, there are also big differences in demographics—the city’s EMS service is less white and more female that its fire companies—and also in how the two uniformed forces are disciplined. The EMS unions say their members are punished for lapses, like taking too long in the bathroom, that would never be disciplined in a fire house.
But the unions can’t say exactly how big those discipline differences are or how they line up with their members’ demographics because the city has rejected their four Freedom of Information Law requests for information on race, gender, salaries and disciplinary incidents for the city’s ambulance crews.
So the unions—AFSCME Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, and AFSCME Local 2507—have filed suit to try to force the de Blasio administration to turn over the information. According to the unions’ lawyer, Yetta Kurland, the data they’re seeking could form the basis for a complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (This is separate from the class action lawsuit filed recently by Black EMS and FDNY civilian workers.)
Last week, the de Blasio administration received an extension on the deadline to answer the suit. The city’s reply is now due at the end of December.
In a statement, a Law Department spokesperson told City Limits, “In general, FOIL requires disclosure of employee information related to their official duties, but otherwise respects an employee’s right of privacy. Thus, information about an individual’s race or gender is exempt from disclosure under FOIL.”
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The city also cited section 50-a of the state’s civil rights law, which protects disciplinary records of cops, firefighters and others from release under FOIL. That measure has been a source of controversy in cases involving allegedly excessive force by the police, and advocates have accused the de Blasio administration of showing undue deference to the measure.
Since 1995, the city’s EMS and firefighting services have both been part of the Fire Department, and since then, fire companies have also responded to medical emergencies. In fact, medical work is now a huge part of what firefighters do. Last year, fire companies responded to six times as many medical emergencies as they did fires. For EMS, there were 1.7 million ambulance runs in 2016.
FDNY’s “fire side” has a little more than 8,000 firefighters while there are roughly 3,000 EMTs and 900 paramedics.
There are clear differences in the job descriptions for firefighters and members of EMS—including the obvious: Firefighters fight fires. Civil service exam listings note that being a firefighter involves tasks like “using forcible entry tools, such as axes, sledge hammers, power saws and hydraulic tools; searching for victims in smoke-filled environments; carrying or dragging victims from dangerous locations; connecting, stretching and operating hose lines; locating hidden fire by feel and smell; providing medical assistance to injured or ill citizens; and providing control and mitigation of hazardous materials incidents while wearing chemical protective clothing.”
EMTs and paramedics face different but also challenging conditions, like “treating patients who may have infectious and communicable diseases” as well as “working in confined spaces such as under vehicles, trains, and buildings” and “working at hazardous material scenes such as a chemical spill or an industrial fire or accident.” Paramedic work involves a high degree of medical skill like administering IVs, performing manual defibrillation and doing emergency tracheotomies.
Eight members of the emergency medical service are listed on FDNY’s roster of line-of-duty deaths, including two who perished on September 11, and Yadira Arroyo, who was killed last March when a man stole her ambulance and ran her over. In the years since the merger,
Guzman joined the department in 2010 after three years as a paramedic on Long Island. He did additional training in order to become a rescue medic. In 2011, he could have made the move to firefighter but decided not to, and he is not sure he will pursue promotion to a higher rank with thin the medical service. “I would like to stay on the streets for 25 years if I could,” he says.
As unionized employees, EMTs and paramedics salaries and work conditions are shaped by collective bargaining process. According to Kurland, however, that illegal discrimination didn’t occur — even if it was not the city’s plan to do so. “You need not find intent in that way,” she says. When it comes to how discipline is imposed, for instance, “It can’t be arbitrarily and capriciously applied that it causes undue hardship.” FDNY declined to comment.
Asked if he thought the racial composition of the medical service was a factor in the pay or discipline disparities, Guzman was unsure, but suspicious. “It potentially could be,” he said. “The department is known for its history.” In 2002, a society representing Black firefighters filed an EEOC complaint against the FDNY alleging the department used racially discriminatory hiring practices. A federal judge ruled against the city in 2011, and while the city won a retrial on appeal in 2013, the de Blasio administration settled the suit in 2014. The most recent FDNY firefighter exam made history by having more non-white than white applicants.