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New Public Safety Director To Prioritize Morale-Boosting, Cooperation Between Bureaus

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto officially introduced Acting Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich Tuesday morning, two weeks after announcing the hiring of the former Pittsburgh paramedic.

After spending 25 years with the FBI, most recently as Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Operations Response Unit, Hissrich said his dream was to come back to Pittsburgh.

He was a finalist for the job two years ago, but ultimately lost the position to former director Stephen Bucar, who left in September for a job with the Pennsylvania State Police.

Hissrich said improving morale among public safety employees – which includes police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and animal control officers – is among his top priorities.

“I know that there are issues out there,” he said. “Some I may not be able to address; the residency (requirement), that’s going to be between the Mayor and the court system. But the everyday stuff, whatever we can do to try to make the professionals’ lives easier, I hope to accomplish that.”

He said call volume to Emergency Medical Services has doubled in the 25 years since he left the bureau, while staffing levels have remained the same. Hissrich attributed that to people calling 911 in non-emergency situations.

“They expect the EMS, paramedics advanced life support to transport patients as a taxi ride to the hospital,” he said. “That hurts, when the actual patient … needs an ambulance – the heart attack, the serious calls – and that ambulance is out of service doing basically a transport to the hospital that doesn’t require an ambulance.”

Hissrich said he wants to improve cooperation and collaboration between the four public safety bureaus, and that the city continues to look for a location for a combined public safety training center. He said he will also look into the possibility of outfitting police with the opioid overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

Peduto said Police Chief Cameron McLay, Fire Chief Darryl Jones and EMS Chief Mark Bocian – who initially recommended Hissrich for the job – were all in favor of his hiring after a two-hour joint meeting with him in the Mayor’s conference room.

“The first thing is, that’s never been done before. There’s never been a time when the chiefs have been a part of the process,” Peduto said. “No. 2, within 24 hours, all three of them had sent me an email saying, ‘We need to hire this guy.’”

According to a statement from the Mayor’s office, the Forest Hills native graduated from Duquesne University in 1984 and worked as a Pittsburgh paramedic for five years, before joining the FBI. He is currently a “life member” of the Forest Hills Volunteer Fire Department.

Hissrich will serve in an acting capacity until confirmed by City Council. Peduto said that process could be completed in as little as three weeks.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.