The Philadelphia Fire Department is hard at work hiring paramedics, Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said yesterday.

But City Council members considering his agency's annual budget were clearly impatient with the pace, since understaffing has been a significant problem.

Mayor Nutter budgeted $3.9 million more for the fiscal year that starts July 1 to help the department hire more paramedics and put more medic units on city streets.

Ayers told Council that he is short 31 paramedics now but has the money to hire 80 more, meaning he could hire 111 if his department could find them.

That prompted Councilman Frank Rizzo to ask Ayers why he doesn't ask the city's personnel department for a waiver of the city's one-year residency requirement for new hires. The city granted such a waiver in February to the Police Department to help recruiting efforts.

"You have the money," Rizzo said, "and we're not doing it. I just don't get it."

Ayers said the Fire Department found that the last time it opened up employment to nonresidents, 25 percent to 30 percent of the new hires left after training to go to nursing school or to departments with lighter workloads.

"They didn't come in and stay with the Philadelphia Fire Department," Ayers said.

Ayers said that his department has dealt with the shortage in paramedics by staffing some medic units with firefighter emergency medical technicians.

"They're capable," Ayers said. "They can take care of any emergency that is out there."

He added that 80 percent of the department's calls are for basic life support that EMTs can handle. The other 20 percent of calls are for advanced life support, requiring a paramedic.

The department has about 80 paramedic recruits "in the pipeline," Ayers said, but he doesn't expect them to be staffing medic units until the summer of 2009.

Ayers added that a key goal is improving response time for advanced life-support calls. He wants to have a paramedic arrive within nine minutes at least 90 percent of the time.

Rizzo kept up the pressure, telling Ayers that he was sure it could be documented that department EMTs sometimes misdiagnose problems and then have to call paramedics for help.

"We hear all the stories about how long it will take for advanced life support," he said "That has taken a long time in some cases." *