An unlikely marriage that lasted: 25 years later, FDNY and EMS still together after testy merger


They are still together, twenty-five years after a shotgun wedding arranged by Rudolph Giuliani: The FDNY and the city’s Emergency Medical Service.

There was no honeymoon when the first responders merged 25 years into a single entity, with neither side entirely thrilled by the new arrangement launched to reduce response times and improve working conditions for both busy agencies. The plan, proposed by then-Mayor Giuliani, wasn’t finalized until 1996 — year three of his initial term in City Hall.

“At the time, (EMS) called it a hostile takeover,” recalled current FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who took over as head of the EMS after the pre-arranged marriage. “A lot of FDNY members didn’t do the job to do medical calls, and EMS liked being on their own.”

Getting the FDNY and EMS to the altar was no easy task. Tony Bernardo, president of the union representing the EMTs, sneered at their proposed new partners prior to the deal that became official on St. Patrick’s Day 1996.

“E.M.S. is one of the most efficient services in the city,” he remarked. “How is that going to fit in the Fire Department, which has never been credited with good management and efficiency?”

And there was this zinger from Bernardo: “Painting all the ambulances red doesn’t do it.”

But all’s well that that ends well. By the 20th anniversary, the once-warring factions could visit the official FDNY online store to buy a T-shirt memorializing the merger. And after a quarter-century, ex-FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen believes bringing the agencies together was unquestionably a huge success for the city as a whole.

“I really do think, absolutely, this was a positive outcome for the citizens,” said Von Essen, who helped the plan reach its finish line. “And for the firefighters, with extra training and money. And I think EMS has benefited from better equipment and training. So everybody has benefited.”

Von Essen, head of the firefighters union before his promotion, acknowledged some restlessness in his ranks about the merger.

“There’s always guys who don’t want to do anything,” he recalled of the pushback. “We actually did a survey, with a whole bunch of questions. The surveys were actually positive … There’s always going to be people criticizing, but I’m really glad we did it.”

Von Essen has just a single complaint about the merger: He believes the EMS workers are entitled to better pay than they currently receive. An FDNY member, after five years on the job, can makes more than $100,000 annually with overtime and holiday pay. A fifth-year EMT earns about half that figure.

“Nobody worked harder during the pandemic,” he said. “They gained more respect than ever. But I don’t see anybody really making an effort to close the gap between firefighters and EMTs.”

Nigro, now the FDNY chief since 2014, prefers to focus on the merger’s success but he remembers the growing pains of the mid-’80s.

“There were hard-headed people on both sides having words in the beginning,” he said. “But little by little, they realized that we are on the same team. Those that couldn’t get used to it are long gone.”