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Pinellas County looks to prioritize 911 medical responses to save money

A distracted driver smacks into your rear bumper. There's broken plastic and damaged paint, but no injuries. Just to be safe, you call 911.

For decades in Pinellas County, that call has spurred a rescue unit and ambulance to the scene with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Such robust response to minor calls may be a comfort, but county officials say the pricey system can't be sustained.

Now officials have unveiled new standards of service for the 19 local fire rescue districts the county contracts with for emergency medical services. The proposed standards, which are scheduled for a County Commission vote on Tuesday, are tied to an effort beginning in March to prioritize 911 medical calls based on urgency.

Approval would be a stiff salvo from the county in its drive to close a budget gap in the response system estimated at $18 million for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The county is spending $40 million this year on its contracts with the fire districts.

Fire chiefs, who were not involved in developing the standards, said they needed time to digest the county's move.

"A lot of this was new information to all of us," said Pinellas Park Fire Rescue Chief Doug Lewis, president of the county fire chiefs' association. "So there is a lot that we have to look at."

Key to the new standards, which will be used to negotiate new contracts with the districts, is the priority dispatch initiative.

In March, 911 dispatchers taking medical calls will ask a series of brief questions. The calls will be classified based on severity. Life threatening situations will still get a full response; not so minor calls like the fender bender.

County officials say 9 percent of medical 911 calls don't warrant a lights-and-siren response.

That excess capacity can be trimmed, county officials say, and allow them to reduce the number of local fire rescue units they fund from 65 to 60. That reduction, plus other proposed cuts, can save an estimated $6.8 million.

The resource cuts will affect response times, but not much, according to the county.

The response time standard for fire rescue units in Pinellas is seven minutes, 30 seconds or less in at least 90 percent of cases. In 2008, the standard was met 96 percent of the time. With the cuts in place, officials estimate it will be met 93 percent of the time.

But those figures are countywide, and some districts would see longer response times than others. East Lake Fire Rescue would be hardest hit, with projections of average response time increasing to six minutes, 36 seconds from six minutes, four seconds.

County Administrator Bob LaSala, who expressed concern during a County Commission workshop over how the changes would be received, stressed how modest they are. "I would tell you in the grand scheme of things, this is fine-tuning," he said.

The county expects to save several million more dollars by right-sizing its ambulance fleet, aggressively tracking spending of emergency medical response tax dollars at the local level and trimming expenses like insurance.

A reserve fund would also be used. About $14 million was taken out to close this year's emergency services budget gap.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas County looks to prioritize 911 medical responses to save money 02/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 10:32pm]
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