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County commissioner invites officials for a tour of emergency dispatch center

The communication center at Sunstar headquarters in Largo is part of a proposed education session and tour of the county’s EMS system. A study is under way to evaluate proposals to streamline the system and cut costs.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The communication center at Sunstar headquarters in Largo is part of a proposed education session and tour of the county’s EMS system. A study is under way to evaluate proposals to streamline the system and cut costs.

Pinellas' emergency medical services system has been a hot-button issue for the past few years, but at least one county commissioner thinks many officials don't really understand how it works.

County Commissioner Susan Latvala wants to change that.

She has invited elected officials from cities and fire districts to a two-hour education session. The session, which will be held at the county's Sunstar headquarters on Ulmerton Road, will include a tour of the ambulance operations and one of three county dispatch centers.

"I just want them to be educated," Latvala said Tuesday. "They can disagree with what the County Commission does or ultimately does (but I want it to be based on knowledge) not out of fear or unknowns. What I hope comes from all of this is that we all become honest with each other."

Latvala's invitation comes during a lull in the debate over the future of the EMS system. A study is under way to evaluate proposals to streamline the system and cut costs. A draft report is scheduled in mid April with the final report expected a month later.

Under the current system, the county's 18 fire departments act as first responders, sending firefighter/paramedics to most emergency medical calls. In 2011-12, the county fielded about 136,000 emergency 911 calls. Of those, about 105,000 ended up being taken to the hospital. That same year, the county had about 38,000 nonemergency medical calls. All were transported.

Pinellas paid those departments about $38.2 million for the service, according to county figures. The county also contracts with Paramedics Plus, a for-profit Texas company, to provide both emergency and nonemergency ambulance transport under the name Sunstar. The county paid about $33.4 million in 2011-12 for that service.

County officials want to reduce the costs of service and, for the past several years, have been locked in debate over the best way to do so. Latvala said some of the rhetoric from those opposing county proposals has relied on scare tactics rather than reasoned debate. But seeing what really happens and how the system works could change the tone of the debate, she said.

Seminole Mayor-elect Leslie Waters said she thinks Latvala's idea is good.

"I certainly hope a lot of elected officials take advantage of it," Waters said. "I think the more education people get, the better."

But Waters said she's not going because she has already toured the system.

Pinellas Park council member Rick Butler also liked the idea, but said he's not going either.

"I would have gone but they didn't invite me," Butler said.

Also not attending is Palm Harbor fire Chief Jim Angle. Angle said he's going to be out of town, but "I'm not sure I would have needed to go anyway. … I think I have a good understanding of how we work together to provide this vital service."

Although it might seem like overkill to send an invitation to one of the fire chiefs, Latvala said she sent them to the four chiefs of the independent fire districts. The chiefs of those districts, which elect their own boards and raise their own fire taxes, are essentially the head administrators, she said, and should be informed of her invitation.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

County commissioner invites officials for a tour of emergency dispatch center 03/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 4:45pm]
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