Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

In Pinellas' EMS debate, it's a numbers game where nobody agrees

In the ongoing debate over Pinellas' emergency medical services system, lots and lots of numbers get tossed around — costs, response times, possible savings — but no one seems to agree on them. • It would seem, though, that there's one number everyone could agree on — how many times a fire vehicle leaves a station. After all, get a list from the county of the calls to 911 that were made during a set time and let two people count them. They'd come up with the same number of calls. Right? • Well, no. Not necessarily. At least not if one is from the Pinellas County side of things and the other is from the fire department side.

Take this statement Bruce Moeller, the county's executive director of safety and emergency services, made on Feb. 4 to county commissioners:

"How many calls did we run last night between 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. this morning? Emergency calls — 49."

His statement prompted fire chiefs in the room to a flurry of frenetic messaging on smartphones and tablets to double check. Nope, they said, there were actually 104 calls during that time.

Both sides are right.

"The numbers are the numbers," said Bert Polk. Polk, chief of Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue, is head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association.

"Where we're having a problem is how (the numbers are) being conveyed, how they're being manipulated," Polk said. "They're not giving people an accurate picture if they're selective about data."

Polk and other fire officials say Moeller's statement about the number of calls is a prime example of manipulated figures. His statement, they say, relies on the way the county defines and classifies emergency calls.

Department officials say that, during that time frame, fire vehicles left their stations 104 times — the number of times they were called for service. Some of those calls were for fire. Others for gas leaks. One was for a firefighter/paramedic team to move temporarily to another station to fill a hole created when several nearby fire vehicles were on calls at the same time. Several were for low-level medical issues, like a stomachache. The 49 were more serious medical issues, such as heart attacks — the so-called "true emergencies."

Moeller agreed Tuesday the classification system is one reason for the discrepancy. Another reason he said is the timing of his research on that night's calls. When he did the research, Moeller said, some of that night's calls had not made it into the system yet. In actuality, he said, there were 75 "emergency medical incidents" during that 10 hours.

"It's unfortunate I shared that preliminary data with the commission," Moeller said Tuesday. But, he said, the county's position still holds — there are fewer calls at night so fewer paramedics are needed.

The chiefs and other local fire officials don't object to the classification of calls. They're upset that the classification is being used to sell a proposal to take paramedics off the street between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. in certain areas as a cost-saving measure. They say the county is understating the number of calls as a way of selling the proposal.

The county argument, is that "only the emergency calls matter," said rescue Chief Ian Womack of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. "From their perspective only 49 calls matter."

But fire officials say those other calls, including those for fire, should count because they take up time and equipment.

The number of calls should be an easy number to agree on in a system that costs about $116 million. That money is divided among 18 Fire Departments that provide first response EMS service, a private company that provides ambulance, and the county, which oversees the system and bills for ambulance rides.

"I will not say that (county officials) lie," said Norm Atherton, member of the Palm Harbor Fire commission. They "take and select numbers that work for this agenda."

Moeller said the numbers aren't selective. It's fine, he said, to talk about workload. But then, the issue becomes who's responsible for paying. Fire, he said, should pay for fire calls. EMS money should not be used that way.

The real problem with disagreement over numbers, the chiefs say, is not only that it's hard to get on the same page, but also that it's almost impossible for taxpayers to judge what's best.

"It's the numbers game," Polk said. "If we can't even agree on the data, how do we discuss progress? How do we discuss solutions? That's been the situation in Pinellas County for years and years and years.

"(Taxpayers are) going to be left holding the bag. All the consequences of this are going to be left with the citizens … the people depending on our service."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @ALindbergTimes on Twitter.

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