EMS lifesavers wonder why pay so low: Merger with FDNY did not include firefighter pay


In 2021 one thing remains true — New York, and our nation, for that matter, would be nowhere without our first responders and essential workers. This last year, with so many serving on the front lines during the pandemic to provide for our region’s needs, illustrated this in an exceptionally clear manner.

This March marks the 25th anniversary of the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) merging to absorb the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workforce, to help bring about a medical modernization to round out the agency’s capability in responding to civilian emergencies.

Formerly part of the Health and Hospitals Corp., the EMS consolidation connected the two unique workforces in a manner that massively bolstered emergency call volumes, at a time when New York City was experiencing a lull in fire-related emergencies.

“We did a much better job of getting them better equipment, better training,” former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen recently acknowledged, “but we never paid them back for what we promised in the merger, (which) would be that they would become equal, hopefully, over a period of time.” The commitment to the EMS side was to better train, equip and professionalize its workforce, along with wages and benefits more in line with the city’s leading first response agencies. That last part has been elusive.

Despite their heavy workload, the mostly minority and female EMS workforce recognizes it is being left out in the cold, and horribly underpaid, even a quarter-century after the big merger and EMS began fulfilling new commitments — via FDNY — to the New Yorkers they are sworn to protect.

According to the Mayor’s Management Report, there were 38,500 total fires from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020 (the city’s 2020 fiscal year), and just over 202,000 non-fire, non-medical emergency responses by fire companies.

At the same time, due to the pandemic, FDNY EMS responded to 1,412,690 medical emergencies, down 8% from FY2019, when FDNY EMS responded to 1,531,870 medical emergencies — the most ever in a single year.

Of those EMS responses, 530,354 were for life-threatening emergencies such as cardiac arrest, unconscious and choking calls, and another 882,336 were triaged as non-life-threatening incidents.

It is unfortunately, a case study of an employer willing to tell others what they should do, but not following their own words with actions. Pre-pandemic the de Blasio administration waged epic battles for fast-food workers to improve wages and work conditions, which seems hollow and ironic, given its mistreatment of its own employees, the EMS medical first responders. Perhaps connected to the lack of support, EMS workers have a 50% burnout and turnover rate within three years, and 70% within five years. Much of this is because EMS workers need to have second and third jobs to make ends meet.

For the difficult, dangerous job New York’s EMS first responders do, the wage starts at about $16.95 per hour, only barely above the minimum wage. That is about 40% less than our members of the NYPD who begin at $42,500 and after five-and-a-half years, make $85,292. FDNY firefighters, on the other hand, start at $43,904 and rise to $85,292 base salary after five years.

Compare that to uniformed EMS members in the city of Boston, who make just 2% less than that city’s police and fire department, with a starting salary out of training academy of $57,000, while FDNY EMS begin at $35,254 and only reaches $50,604 after half-a-decade on the job.

And consider that their EMS brethren in Minneapolis have a starting wage of $47,110; in Chicago, it’s $49,070. According to the Chicago Business Journal, the average monthly expenses in Chicago add up to $2,495. In New York, for the same standard of living, an employee would need an average monthly expense equaling $3,956.

It is part of the reason why EMS workers here often must live 50 to 100 miles away from the city to afford housing. Simply put, the wages and conditions experienced by the professional members of the FDNY EMS are discriminatory.

The members of EMS have been front and center in the COVID-19 pandemic, at great risk to us and our families, as our role in keeping this city safe has expanded and evolved. Unfortunately, it always seems we are taken for granted by city leadership.

City Hall is now handing off, from NYPD to EMS, the important, skilled work of staffing incidents involving emotionally disturbed individuals — but without the protection afforded to police, and without wages commensurate with the job they perform.

The needs of our EMS responders deserve the recognition of city and state leadership today. We must work together to support our workforce with compensation and benefit protections that recognize their importance and the risks they take for the betterment of our city.

Barzilay is a veteran EMS provider, and president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, which represents NYC’s paramedics, EMTs and fire inspectors.