BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Buffalo firefighters are required to be Emergency Medical Technicians, or EMTs, as a condition of employment. But as News 4 Investigates discovered, around 200 members are lacking recertification, which needs to be done every three years.

“Their lack of certification means that they have not been tested. They have not had that state exam that would recertify them. And that’s been our problem,” Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield said.

According to Whitfield, the training, which involves classroom and practical skills, is done during a firefighter’s normal work schedule with no overtime involved, and could take nearly three months to complete.

“We have to take companies out of service and bring them downtown to our classrooms,” Whitfield said. “We’re limited in the number of persons we can take out of service to provide them that training because we must provide protection to the rest of the city.”

Buffalo firefighters are seasoned, and well-trained. Many members have had to go through EMT recertification before. The push to make them EMTs came from the City’s desire to raise the level of service to the community.

“We’re at the point now because of the limited number of persons we have available to us on a daily basis. It’s difficult,” Whitfield added. “We’re starting to get behind a little bit, but we recognize that.”

Most emergency calls are for medical help and the firefighters are usually the first on the scene. They’re tasked with lifesaving skills.

Erie County’s Division of Emergency Medical Services oversees much of the EMT training in the county, including the Buffalo Fire Department.

According to Gregory Gill, Deputy Commissioner of the county’s EMS division, once a certification lapses an individual is no longer recognized as an EMT by the New York State Health Department.

“Therefore they can’t do those different functions. They’re working outside their scope and they just will not be under the umbrella of being an EMT,” Gill said.

According to a state health department spokesman, “Firefighter EMT certification is a requirement of the City of Buffalo, not the State of New York. Performing EMT services without proper certification, however, is prohibited under state statute. DOH will therefore investigate any complaint of an uncertified individual attempting to provide EMT services.”

Buffalo firefighters whose certification has not been renewed can still respond to calls. “There are others that they’re working with that are completely certified and able to provide those services. Theirs would become more of a support role in many cases,” said Whitfield.

Gregory Gill added, “They can still assist them on certain things. But they just don’t have that level of certification to act independently under protocols already set by New York State.”

And while the recertification backlog is a fire department management issue, the union representing Buffalo firefighters is keeping tabs on the situation.

“They should have been more on top of things,” said Thomas Barrett, president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters.

He said the union would like to see “better organizational skills and management” of the program.

“The EMS portion of our job is anywhere from 60 to 70 something percent of our calls are EMS, and it’s a big factor of our job, our workload,” Barrett said.

The job of an EMT comes with the responsibility of saving lives and making split-second decisions.

“For example, if somebody’s unresponsive. You’re trained how to open an airway, maintain an airway. Make sure the patient’s oxygenated. That’s the most critical thing they could ever do,” Gregory Gill explained.

According to Commissioner Whitfield, of the 200 lacking EMT recertification, 48 are now in class, and 23 are classified as long-term injured on-duty, meaning they’re not available for training.

“We don’t have the ability to order people to take this other than when they’re working. And for them to take it when they’re working they’re not available for emergency calls in the City of Buffalo. So, it’s a delicate balance,” he said.

Whitfield said the recertification backlog is compounded by a number of vacancies that the fire department has been dealing with.

But that’s changing.

Sixty-two fire recruits were sworn in Saturday during a ceremony at Erie Community College city campus, and up to 63 more recruits are scheduled to be sworn in later this week, making it one of the largest classes of recruits in the history of the fire department.

The recruits will immediately begin a 12 week fire academy training, but it will not include EMT training. They’ll have to wait until graduation in late summer before starting that program.

“We’re working on a plan that would allow them to get it immediately upon graduating from this academy. They’ll go right into EMT class,” Whitfield said. “It’s a semester-long course. It is a college level course.”

Despite the recertification backlog the city is now experiencing, both Whitfield and Barrett said the level of care on the streets of Buffalo will not change.

“We still function every day as EMTs, and we provide, I think, the most professional and best medical service that’s out there for the citizens of Buffalo,” Barrett said.

“It’s not going to impede our ability to provide services. But it certainly is something that we’re concerned about, and that we’re addressing,” Whitfield assured Buffalo residents.

There is a more efficient way to get firefighters recertified.

Whitfield explained to News 4 Investigates that the City has permission from the state to participate in a rapid recertification program. He said it’s a continuing education program in which the progress of members can be tracked and managed.

“Over the three year period they’re allowed to electronically get all of the lecture material and those kinds of things done 24/7 as long as they have access to the internet, which they do, even at work or at home, and take the required lectures,” he said. “That’s going to help us tremendously in terms of being able to recertify persons in a much more timely manner, in a much more less intrusive manner.”

Whitfield expects to have the rapid recertification program up and running before the end of the year.