The paramedics, who are already state certified as firefighters but need training on how Cleveland operates, join a class of fire cadets who are about half way through their training at the academy. Once training is completed, the EMS workers will return to their current assignments pending negotiations between the city and three unions.
"It's a huge step," said Ed Eckart, the city's assistant safety director. "Even though it's six people -- that's a small number -- in terms of the next step, getting the integration done, it's a huge step."
Eckart said city officials hope to reach agreement with unions over how EMS workers will become firefighters by the time the academy ends in mid-August.
If that happens -- and if the city's budget allows for the necessary new equipment and fire station upgrades -- he said the goal would be to merge the two divisions by the end of the year.
Orlando Wheeler, president of the EMS union, the Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees Local 1975, said today that union and city officials are scheduled to meet again June 26.
"This is a step toward the ultimate goal -- integrating the two services," Wheeler said. "Not much else has been agreed upon yet. There's still a lot to work out. Right now, this is merely a training opportunity and it's a step in the right direction."
Likewise, Frank Szabo, president of the union representing firefighters, Cleveland Fire Fighters IAFF Local 93, was equally cautious.
"Obviously, they've announced an intention to merge the two divisions," Szabo said. "But we still are negotiating on how that's going to happen.
"The issues [around] if and how the EMS folks cross over and become firefighters haven't been resolved yet. It's part of the ongoing negotiations among many, many, many issues."
The merger of the divisions has been a point of controversy in the past between city officials and the unions representing EMS workers and firefighters.
But in an era of fewer structural fires and growing numbers of medical emergencies, city officials say they envision a Division of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Medical Service staffed by men and women cross-trained in both fighting fires and providing emergency medical care.
Fire trucks sent out on medical calls would carry advanced life support technology and rescuers capable of using it. And fire trucks and ambulances would be dispatched using a highly coordinated, efficient system that maximizes resources and saves time.
Each of the EMS employee joining the academy Monday already has a State of Ohio Firefighter II certification. The eight weeks of training will prepare them to operate within the Division of Fire as a cross trained firefighter-paramedic, capable of mitigating fire and medical emergencies.
Eckart added that 50 firefighters already are trained and certified as EMS paramedics. With the addition of these six EMS workers, Cleveland would have a solid foundation to implement the merger.
"When somebody dials 9-1-1 and we dispatch the ambulance, regardless of if it's for a fire or a medical emergency, the crew that's on that unit will be able to handle either emergency," Eckart said.