CHICAGO — Lost in the clamor over the city's rising homicide rate is that the city's Fire Department is saving lives from gunshot wounds at a stunning pace.
Chicago Fire Fighters Union spokesman Tim O'Brien said the untold story of the city's violence this year was not the homicides, which had already topped the total for last year and were on pace to close in on 500, but the lives saved by paramedics and emergency medical technicians in shootings.
"Nobody's talking about the 1,000 shooting victims who survived because of the work Chicago firefighters did and Chicago Fire Department paramedics," O'Brien said. "What an incredible job by our members.
"We have 1,000 rescues under our belt this year," he said, "and nobody's talking about it."
O'Brien — whose nickname is "Braveheart" because of his flair for motivational speeches a la the film's protagonist William Wallace — isn't shy about publicizing the CFD's success. Yet, for obvious public-relations reasons, it's not something the Emanuel administration encourages the Fire Department to thump its chest over.
"It's not something the Fire Department even needs to track," said CFD spokesman Larry Langford. "Our mission is to provide emergency medical care en route to the professionals at the hospital. And what we do is deliver them as fast as we can, but what happens after that doesn't affect our level of care or of service."
It's not just a case of city bureaucrats turning a blind eye to the issue. "It's something we can't track," Langford said. Federal regulations on medical privacy make it impossible for the department to separate the survivors from the dead, even for statistical purposes.
"We don't keep stats on what happens to the patient after they arrive at the hospital. When we transport a patient who's extremely critical, he or she may die within an hour or two at the hospital, but we don't do a follow-up," Langford said.
"Once we drop someone off," he added, "I can't call the hospital and check on them."
For this and other logistical reasons, exact figures on gunshot rescues aren't kept. Even keeping track of ambulances answering gunshot calls is complicated by instances such as false alarms, or when a wounded person is driven away by someone else before the ambulance can get there.
"The fact that they may have an EMT transport is not documented along with the shots-fired report," said Delores Robinson, spokeswoman for the city Office of Emergency Management & Communications, which handles 911 calls and dispatches ambulances.
Estimations are possible. According to Chicago Police Department statistics, as of Nov. 11, some 451 persons had been murdered in Chicago this year, up 17 percent from the same time last year and 15 percent from 2010. According to police, 394 were gunshot victims. At the same time, the city reported 2,184 shooting incidents, up 10 percent from last year and 3 percent from 2010. That means close to 1,800 survived their gunshot wounds.
Yet, how many of those were treated by Fire Department employees? OEMC data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that 1,676 "gunshot events" resulted in ambulance treatment thus far this year, after 1,730 for all of 2011 and 1,729 in 2010. Even allowing that all those killed by gunshot were treated by an ambulance, that would mean almost 1,300 survivors. Of course, many of those victims found dead didn't require ambulance treatment, making the total more likely closer to 1,500 gunshot victims saved by Chicago firefighters, paramedics and EMTs so far this year — the best estimate possible.
O'Brien credited the CFD's Advanced Life Support and Basic Life Support programs with the success at gunshot rescues. ALS means that one of the five firefighters on an engine is "a dual-certified fire medic," a firefighter who's also a paramedic and able to administer drugs at the scene, O'Brien said.
BLS, by contrast, means that one of the firefighters is also a certified EMT. That means, O'Brien said, that at a shooting scene with a fire engine, a truck and an ambulance, four or five of the CFD personnel on site could have extensive medical training.
"That's a huge reason why these rescues are increasing," O'Brien said.
Of the city's 96 engines, 60 are ALS, according to Langford, and the Fire Department plans to add more. He agreed that the program, begun in the 2000s, "makes a difference in treating any kind of trauma" because engines are in every neighborhood, while the city has only 60 ambulances on the street, 15 of them BLS.
An ALS engine can frequently get to the scene faster, and in matters of life or death an ALS engine fire medic and a BLS ambulance EMT can shift roles in action, converting the ambulance to ALS and allowing the patient to be treated with medication en route.
The city's homicide rate has declined in recent months. For instance, for the last seven days data was available, there were five homicides across the city, down from 17 in the same seven-day period a year ago. Yet, there were 48 shooting incidents, up from 31 a year ago. That's 43 rescues in a week this year, compared with 14 a year ago, O'Brien calculated.
O'Brien also credited staffing levels, which have been fairly level in the Fire Department, unlike the Police Department, which he said has seen its ranks depleted by attrition.
"We're not really as far behind as they are," O'Brien said. "We're close to full staff." Even so, they're struggling to keep pace with retirements, with some paramedics and EMTs working 24-hour shifts. Still, they're handling it — to the tune of about 1,500 gunshot survivors, even more than O'Brien estimated.
"If we were understaffed, like the police, it might be a different situation," he added. "We might not have 1,000 rescues. We might have 1,000 shooting deaths and only 400 rescues."