LARGO — Commissioners here have unanimously withdrawn their support of a county proposal to send fewer paramedics to some low-level calls for emergency medical service.
In withdrawing their support, Largo commissioners said they want Pinellas County to hold off on implementing the plan. They also want to make sure their firefighter/paramedics are still informed of those calls and will continue to run them. Under the original proposal, the county would not have told any of the 18 fire departments that provide first-response EMS service that someone in their area had called for help if the complaint fell into one of the low level categories. Those categories include such things as hiccups and certain falls.
The commission's about-face brought it into line with the stance of most of the other 18 departments that have asked the county to delay implementation at least until a study of the system is complete — most likely in May — and to continue informing them of the calls so firefighters can still answer them.
Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said Monday that the commission's original vote in September to support the proposal came at the request of Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, who called asking for help because opposition to the proposal was so widespread. The reversal came in part because Largo firefighters have lobbied against the move.
"We are very pleased with the Largo commission's unanimous decision to allow the Fire Department to continue to respond to all of the Largo citizens' calls for help," said Macho Liberti, secretary-treasurer of the Largo Professional Firefighters Association.
Under the current EMS system, firefighters and ambulances are sent to most calls for medical emergencies. The county pays the fire departments for first response service and a private ambulance company for transporting patients to the hospital. It's a system that most say works well but has become increasingly expensive in recent years.
LaSala has made several suggestions that, he says, will cut costs. One of those proposals is to have only an ambulance respond to certain calls that are not deemed to be real emergencies even though they come through the 911 center. The thinking is that these calls do not need immediate full-blown help but, because most of them end up in the emergency room, an ambulance alone is the appropriate response. This also leaves firefighters free to answer true emergency calls.
But most fire chiefs and departments have opposed the idea. LaSala and others at the county level say the opposition stems from a desire to save jobs and keep money flowing into the departments. But the chiefs, firefighters and many elected officials say the concern is more with duty and doing what's best for the patients. They say they are required to answer calls to those in their coverage area. And they worry about calls that turn out to be more serious than they appear to 911 dispatchers.
Wallace said that happened a few days before his commission voted to rescind their support of LaSala's proposal.
A call came in, he said, that was reported as a fall with no bodily injuries. Because it was not classed as a true emergency, rescue vehicles did not respond with lights and sirens and were required to obey all traffic rules and must wait even if they get stuck in traffic. The ambulance arrived about 18 minutes after the call. Firefighters arrived a couple of minutes later.
They found that an elderly woman had fallen from a motorized chair, which had landed on her. She had suffered a broken hip and leg, Wallace said. Wallace said the city got a call from someone who was angry that the response had not been faster and did not understand why the call had not been classified as a true emergency.
"Had this been under the new system, we would not have gone on that call," Wallace said. "There is some value in responding to those calls. . . . If (you're) arguing service, (sending firefighters is) absolutely required."
Wallace said he believes the argument will be irrelevant when the study is complete. The best way to save money, he said, is to allow fire departments that have rescue vehicles — the trucks that look like ambulances — take patients to the hospital. The ambulance could continue transporting for those departments without rescue vehicles. That hybrid model, he said, would require no purchase of new equipment and could save the county millions.
Wallace said he truly believes the study will conclude that hybrid model is the best way to go.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.