NEW YORK CITY — A small band of city emergency workers and paramedics, led by a former FDNY EMT who resigned following dozens of alleged disciplinary infractions, have peeled off the gloves to create the Big Apple's first citywide advocacy group for emergency medical workers.
The organization, called Banshee, started in 2008 and now boasts several dozen members, according to founder Walter Adler, who served as an FDNY EMT from 2008 to December 2011. The name refers to the spirit in Irish mythology who appears and emits a wail just before a person dies.
"It's a twist on the myth — we go and hopefully save someone's life before they die," said Adler, who described Banshee as a "proto union" geared toward fighting for higher pay and better working conditions for EMTs and paramedics.
"We will never have the political or economic clout that firefighters, cops, nurses or teachers have had unless we come together," he said.
"Call it the Thin Blue Line, call it whatever you want. Cops and firemen stick together. EMS has a classic history of turning out only when someone dies."
New York City’s EMS system is inherently divided. The FDNY, which has about 3,500 EMTs and paramedics, says it responds to roughly 60 percent of 911 calls.
The other 40 percent are handled by three different groups: “voluntary” ambulances, which are run by hospitals; “volunteer” ambulances, such as the Park Slope or Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which are staffed by unpaid EMTs and paramedics; and “private” ambulances like TransCare or SeniorCare, which largely perform non-emergency transports, such as taking bed-ridden patients to and from dialysis appointments.
Depending which agency they work for, EMTs and paramedics belong to one of three labor unions, or to no union at all. And while Adler insists Banshee is not seeking to take part in contract negotiations or labor disputes — what he calls “a line that we will never cross” — union leaders dismissed Adler and Banshee out of hand.
“Based on Mr. Adler’s past history, we have no intention of meeting with him,” said Robert Ungar, spokesman for District Council 37 Local 2507, which represents FDNY EMTs and paramedics, and an Albany lobbyist for both Local 2507 and the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York.
Ungar pointed to Adler’s "resignation in lieu of termination" from the FDNY in December 2011, which occurred after the department filed 38 violations against him that ranged from wearing his FDNY uniform at public events without authorization, to being absent without leave, Adler explained.
The FDNY did not confirm the number of violations nor why they were issued.
That checkered record, city EMTs and paramedics said, made them wary of Banshee. The group’s semiannual newspaper, they added, also often reads like a manifesto.
The cover of the first issue in July 2009, for example, is splashed with national flags, a woman wielding a sword, and the word “UNITED” in bold font.
In the latest issue, Banshee’s seventh, Adler declares: "The world is a vast series of plantations and we work these plantations and die thanklessly for masters chasing life, liberty, and property…. We, NYC EMTs and Paramedics work on a plantation too."
As six-year paramedic Khalid Islam described, “Its tone can be brash. But if you can get beyond the language, it makes some good points.”
A chief complaint of Banshee is compensation. FDNY EMT salaries top out at $45,834 after five years, with paramedic salaries topping out at $59,079, according to the department’s website. Voluntary and private emergency medical workers each said they typically make about $5,000 to $7,000 more than the FDNY salary.
Firefighters, by comparison, can earn nearly $77,000, the FDNY website says, plus another $23,000 in fringe benefits.
“We’re third-class citizens in the fire department,” said a 12-year FDNY EMT, who spoke the on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
“A good vast majority of firefighters treat us like — they won't even say 'Hi' to you. They just give you dirty looks. We've had partners who went to the fire side, and it's like they erase their brains that they ever did this. They see you and don’t even acknowledge you.”
It was a complaint echoed by many other FDNY EMTs and paramedics.
“You get this us-versus-them mentality,” another 12-year paramedic stated. “We eat all the s—t. They get all the glory.”
Ungar, the head of the FDNY EMS labor union, said his group does not formally track complaints against firefighters, but stated “now it’s very sporadic” compared to when the FDNY first took over municipal EMS operations from the city’s Department of Health and Hospitals Corporation in 1996. He then directed the conversation toward the city’s non-FDNY emergency medical workers.
“Our interests are completely different than those of the private sector,” he asserted, labeling private and voluntary ambulances “an intrusion.”
“The only obligation for FDNY EMS is lifesaving measures. We’re not in it like corporate ambulances to make money.”
Voluntary and private emergency medical workers scoffed at the accusation, noting that the FDNY also bills for emergency medical services.
“They’re just as guilty as anybody else,” said a 20-year voluntary EMT. “There's never been any kind of love lost with us and the fire department.”
He and others emphasized, however, that most friction between emergency medical workers occurs at senior levels — between chiefs and labor union leaders fighting for turf and a greater slice of the city’s emergency medical calls, which can prove lucrative through medical billing.
When it comes to the EMS workers laboring in ambulances day-in and day-out, “We're all blue,” a 20-year voluntary EMT said. “We have all of each other's backs. In the end, everybody is there for each other.”
And therein lies the potential for a citywide EMS advocacy group, they claimed.
“There’s so much room for improvement,” said Brian C., a 12-year voluntary paramedic who said Banshee could improve patient care during the transition from ambulance to the emergency room, provide greater support for the emotional toll and frequent physical injuries that come with the job, and help fight for greater pay.
“It can happen, because I think a number of people would be agreeable to it. But it has to be completely level and has to accept both sides” — FDNY and non-FDNY — “because there’s going to be so many people shooting arrows at it.”
This summer, Banshee began to offer support services in earnest. It rolled out a “Time Bank” system for bartering services — a carpentry-savvy EMT, for example, can trade two hours of work in exchange for another EMT fixing his home’s leaky faucet. The group also started a "10-13 Fund," named after the FDNY EMS radio code for requesting assistance, to support member EMTs and paramedics who become sick or injured.
“If any EMS organization is going to be taken seriously," Adler said, "it has to prove it can take care of itself."