Chicago paramedic who fought for more ambulances retires after 45 years

The number of ambulances in the Chicago Fire Department's fleet has more than doubled since Paramedic Crew Chief Pat Fitzmaurice began his career there

Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — As far as big names in Chicago history go, Pat Fitzmaurice isn’t exactly well-known.

But fellow paramedics say that in addition to directly saving hundreds or thousands of lives as a paramedic these past 45 years, he made every city resident safer through his tireless crusade to speed up emergency response times by adding to the city’s fleet of ambulances, which has doubled in size during his tenure.

Chicago Fire Department Paramedic Crew Chief Pat Fitzmaurice, the department's current longest-serving medic, is retiring after 45 years of service. Fitzmaurice became well-known for being outspoken about the department's need for more ambulances to handle its call volume.
Chicago Fire Department Paramedic Crew Chief Pat Fitzmaurice, the department's current longest-serving medic, is retiring after 45 years of service. Fitzmaurice became well-known for being outspoken about the department's need for more ambulances to handle its call volume. (Photo/E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune)

When he retired Wednesday morning, Fitzmaurice ended his reign as the current longest-serving paramedic on the Chicago Fire Department. His job as a crew chief on the always-hopping West Side, overseeing the city’s busiest rigs, has been one of seemingly nonstop calls. But what sets him apart from his peers is that he’s as well-known for sounding alarms as for responding to them.

“I think that he raised the awareness that we had some extremely long — unreasonably long —response times," said Robin Alvarez, a fellow paramedic crew chief. “And I do think he’s personally responsible for getting a lot of these ambulances out here.”

The Fire Department ran 39 ambulances when Fitzmaurice started on March 24, 1975; 80 are running today, he said.

“He never spoke out for himself or for any kind of recognition. He did it for the city. And he succeeded,” said his friend and former partner, Bob Zange, who has since retired.

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the size of the fleet has more to do with the ever-expanding role of paramedics than Fitzmaurice’s media savvy, although he said Fitzmaurice’s lobbying “certainly didn’t hurt.”

Originally, the department formed paramedic squads to treat injured firefighters, Langford said. Over the years, it shifted to complement privately run ambulance companies serving everyday citizens. Today, of the emergency calls the Fire Department responds to, 87% are for emergency medical services.

“I respect that he is a man of extreme passion and believes in the job — it’s a part of him," Langford said. "I will miss him because of his passion and dedication. We did not always agree on topics but we respected each other and I think the department will be less with him gone.”

Fitzmaurice didn’t expect to amount to much when he signed on to the job as a 21-year-old. A high school dropout, he had been working at Roma’s Beef stand on Cicero Avenue, he said. The father of the restaurant owner pushed him to go to City Hall to look for a job. Fitzmaurice, who originally wanted to be a police officer, expected to apply for a Streets and Sanitation crew but hiring had just ended.

“'Don’t leave there without a job,” Fitzmaurice recalled the man saying. “They asked me if I wanted a job working with Chicago Fire, driving the ambulances. I said. ‘Count me in.’

"I’m almost positive I went home, bought a uniform and started the next day. They taught us how to drive the ambulance, how to carry a stretcher and that was pretty much it.”

Given that he hadn’t planned on becoming a paramedic, it’s remarkable he managed to serve as one longer than almost anyone in the agency’s history. Before Fitzmaurice’s last shift, Langford said no current paramedics had a longer tenure, but there have been a handful in the department’s history who bested Fitzmaurice’s 45 years, 7 months and 28 days.

Police officers and firefighters have mandatory retirement at age 63, but not paramedics. Fitzmaurice considers it just one way the agency treats paramedics as less praiseworthy than firefighters.

“You’d think the Fire Department would go to the budget hearings and say ‘We need more ambulances.’ You’d think they’d cross-train us rather than pay us millions in overtime just to maintain this line in the sand of us versus them. They want us to shut up and pay the rent and it bothers me deeply,” Fitzmaurice said. “What we do just doesn’t count, even though we bring in the majority of the revenue. Why is it we respect what they do but they don’t respect what we do?”

With comments such as those, friends said, he outlasted his peers even with a target on his back. Alvarez, who said Fitzmaurice is the most honorable person she’s ever met, said even though some found his direct and roughstyle off-putting, his heart was in the right place.

“He’s 100% supportive of the people that he works with, the crews on the street and EMS in general—and that’s really what he’s been, the champion of EMS all these years,” she said.

Considering just how critical he’s been of the department he loves, Fitzmaurice seems shocked to be leaving of his own volition. Many a fire commissioner would have liked to have sent him packing decades ago, he said.

“They wanted me bad, they wanted me gone,” he said. “At the time I kept telling my wife — we just had a baby — I told her as long as I do my job, they can’t touch me. ... She backed me, but I knew she was scared. My brothers, my parents—my God, I know they were scared for me. But I wasn’t backing down."

Fitzmaurice learned the power of the media when he was invited onto Bruce DuMont’s then-fledgling talk radio program. A teenager with asthma had died at the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, in part because paramedics couldn’t quickly reach him. Fitzmaurice took exception to people blaming the high-profile death on inadequacies in the city’s emergency medical services.

“You can’t use the elevators — there’s guys there controlling the access and they don’t care that you’re trying to save someone’s life. You can’t get the stairs — the gangs are doing business deals in the stairwells and you’re at risk there,” and without a police escort, Fitzmaurice said—another thing that has changed since those days.

Fitzmaurice was shocked at how many people heard the radio program and told him they were impressed with how he explained the situation.

“I never believed that I would get the response I got," he said. "And what I kept coming back to was, my driver’s license says ‘United States of America’ and if I want to talk to the press, I’m going to talk to the press.”

And talk he did.

When longtime Chicago journalist Pam Zekman, then at WBBM-TV, did a series on Fire Department response times, she told Fitzmaurice that she would follow the story wherever it went. When department brass held a news conference about something they wanted to promote, Zekman asked about ambulance run data Fitzmaurice said she “mysteriously” obtained. In the mid-1990s he appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” debating department brass about the still-lagging response times.

“I was at war with the department, that’s the way it felt," Fitzmaurice said.

"And early on, the way I felt I could legitimize it was, ‘I’m not your unnamed source, I’m Patrick Fitzmaurice,'” he said. “I knew for this to work I needed to be willing to use my name, to put it out there and stand by it.”

Through the years, though, when he wasn’t an expert on a topic but felt media should be aware of a problem, he occasionally provided anonymous tips to reporters.

Ambulance commander Melanie Howe, who worked under “Fitz,” as she calls him, until Wednesday, said she’s been inspired by his dedication to shining a light on injustice and his support of the paramedics under him.

“I’ve worked for a lot of really great people over the last 20 years but I’ve never felt more supported ... Fitz is definitely one of a kind," Howe said. "We run all day and all night on the West Side and I always say, ‘If we’re up, he’s up.'”

Fitzmaurice has kept a scrapbook of articles he’s appeared in and he’s developed a friendship with Tribune columnist John Kass, who wrote about Fitzmaurice’s garden this summer. Kass also featured Fitzmaurice in a 2015 column about rules prohibiting paramedics from wearing bulletproof vests over their uniforms. The department consequently amended its policy.

“He loves that job, and the paramedics. He fights for them. Like many EMTs, he’s haunted by all those children he’s treated who’ve been shot in the street gang wars on the West Side,” Kass wrote in an email.

Fitzmaurice has been outspoken about the city’s violence and said it took him years of reflection to find a coping strategy better than drinking and making others uncomfortable by relaying gory details that no one else wanted to hear.

“This job, it ain’t delivering pizzas. I have seen some s--- that nobody needs to see," he said.

That included two firemen deaths, a woman who killed her children and a girl who was run over by an airplane, he said. He told his brothers the graphic details of the girl’s injury, causing a brief rift between them, he said.

“I think I wanted them to feel as bad as I did,” he said, adding that he later turned to exercise as a healthier way to work out the demons. He also boxes and gardens with Marilyn, his wife of nearly 40 years.

“He’s stubborn. Old school and strong-willed. He’s Chicago. If you were in a tough spot, you’d want him watching your back,” Kass said.

Fitzmaurice, who entered retirement when his last 24-hour shift ended at 6 a.m. Wednesday, eschewed the usual celebration that would accompany a paramedic’s last shift, said Howe.

That usually involves someone volunteering to take over for the soon-to-be-retiree when their ambulance is called out, so the person can greet guests coming into the firehouse, Howe said.

But well before it became clear the pandemic would curtail such a celebration, Fitmaurice decided "He didn’t want to do that because he wanted to have that last day out there with us,” How said.

On Monday he went to Costco and purchased a bottle of Champagne to drink in a private celebration with Marilyn, likely on Thursday — after he gets some rest.

Howe said she previously was unsure whether Fitzmaurice was ready to retire or if he was doing it to appease his family, who all sacrificed so much time with him throughout the years. Then, earlier this year, she began to sense a shift in him.

“There’s a window where you get out when the getting’s good. He got to his window a lot later but over the last 6 to 8 months, I really saw him begin to reconcile that he was going to leave. And he’s doing it for himself. There’s places he wants to go, he’s been talking about doing a trip to Europe,” she said.

“It’s almost like his cup finally got full enough and it’s starting to spill over," Howe said.He knows now that he’s done so much for so long but he’s taught us right and he doesn’t have to fight the system alone anymore," Howe said. "He knows we’re going to be OK without him.”


(c)2020 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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