Complaints from 10 of Pinellas' 18 fire departments have persuaded the county to modify its proposal to reduce the number of paramedics sent to some low-level medical emergencies.
Under the county's original proposal, only an ambulance would have been dispatched to those emergencies.
The fire departments were upset because under that plan, they would not have been told that their residents had called for help.
Under the county's updated version, both fire departments and the ambulance service will be notified — as they are now — of calls for emergency medical help, but fire departments will be told they don't have to respond.
The County Commission is scheduled to consider the proposal at its Tuesday meeting.
"They're saying it's up to the individual jurisdictions whether they want to respond or not," said Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Bert Polk, who is head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association. "It's a new concept."
Under Pinellas County's current emergency medical services system, both firefighter/paramedics and ambulances with paramedics are sent to most calls for help.
Originally, the county wanted to change that so that only an ambulance would be sent to such low-level calls as certain falls, abnormal blood pressure and hiccups. The county believed that sending only an ambulance would save money and leave firefighters available for more serious emergencies.
Under the current system, the next closest fire unit is sent to the emergency when the closest one is unavailable.
Cities and fire districts agreed that sending fewer paramedics and emergency vehicles to certain calls is a good idea. But many said the county was going about it the wrong way. They said the plan would not save money and they objected to being kept in the dark when one of their constituents called for help.
They also objected to the increased time it would take for someone to get help. Currently, firefighters arrive in an average of 4 1/2 minutes. Under the proposal, the ambulance would have up to 15 minutes to get to a scene.
The fire departments also worried that serious illnesses would be misclassified, resulting in a long wait for medical help when a more rapid response was needed.
Bruce Moeller, director of Pinellas' public safety division, said that last fear is overrated. The county analyzed the data and discovered it is more likely that a unit would get another emergency call while tied up treating a bump or bruise than it is that a dispatcher would under estimate the severity of a call.
"Which one is more likely to happen? … The likelihood of us being wrong is less than the likelihood there will be a second call," Moeller said. "This is a math problem."
Ten cities and fire districts passed resolutions opposing the original county proposal and asking that the commission hold off on its vote until a study of potential changes to the EMS system is completed. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said his city would sue if the county went ahead with the plan.
Then, last month, the East Lake Fire Commission took the strongest official stand against the proposal. It passed a resolution that, among other things, said the proposal "denies East Lake residents the level of emergency response that they are accustomed and entitled to."
The resolution also "demands notification of all calls placed from within the district," because the East Lake fire department "intends to respond to each and every call, regardless of severity, as it always has."
"We're very serious about this," said Mark Weinkrantz, chairman of the East Lake Fire Commission. "We're not going to accept their limitations. … We're not going to let the county tell us we can't respond to the needs of our community."
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