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St. Petersburg fire chief opposes EMS funding change proposal

ST. PETERSBURG — Fire Chief Jim Large says there's no way his department can provide quality service for medical emergencies under a county proposal to change the way such services are funded.

It's unclear, Large said, what St. Petersburg officials plan to do if they have to face an estimated cut of $7.3 million to $8.1 million a year, but "in a worst case scenario, we'll be out of the (EMS) business (and) let the county worry about EMS, since they're the authority."

St. Petersburg would provide only fire service, which is paid out of city funds. EMS is paid for by a countywide property tax and ambulance user fees.

Large said he hopes the situation doesn't deteriorate to the extent that St. Petersburg leaves the system. The St. Petersburg City Council and the Pinellas County Commission plan to meet to try to iron out a solution. That meeting is expected toward the end of October.

County Administrator Bob LaSala said he would like to know more about the facts behind Large's claims. But he declined to comment further until after the meetings between St. Petersburg and the county.

"I think it would be premature for me to speak to that until we have finished that process," LaSala said. "I don't want to get ahead of ourselves."

The county has a two-tier EMS system that uses firefighter/paramedics from the county's 18 fire departments to respond first to a medical emergency. County rules say they must be at the scene within 7½ minutes after being called at least 90 percent of the time, but the countywide average is better — about four minutes. An ambulance is also called, which arrives after the firefighters. The ambulance is run and staffed by Paramedics Plus, a Texas company that contracts with the county to run the calls under the name Sunstar. The ambulance paramedics take the patient to the hospital. The goal is to get the firefighters back on the street quickly to be available for the next emergency rather than being tied up at the hospital.

But LaSala says the system is financially unsustainable and will be bankrupt in 2013 if changes are not made. The county raised ambulance fees last year. This year, the County Commission is poised to raise the property tax rate for EMS by an average of 41 percent.

LaSala has also proposed a new funding plan — pay the departments for 72 firefighter/paramedic positions who would ride on fire trucks, that would be partially funded by the county.

A position is three people — one for each shift — and the replacements necessary during vacations or sick time. The county would pay the average salary and benefits of firefighter/paramedics across the county. That's an increase in the number of vehicles funded (currently the county pays part or all of the money for 62) but a decrease in the number of positions (currently 85).

LaSala says the savings would be about $11 million a year over the current system and would not change the standard of service. By standard, LaSala is referring to the requirement that the firefighters arrive in 7½ minutes 90 percent of the time.

But Large said LaSala is framing the discussion incorrectly. The debate over EMS should focus on the effect of LaSala's proposal on what actually happens on the street. And removing 13 paramedic positions (39-plus people) from the system can't help but delay responses to medical emergencies simply because there won't be enough people to answer calls.

The debate, so far, is "not about service, which is extremely sad," Large said. "There's no interest in having a conversation on the impact."

He added, "To sell this as no impact to service is extremely flawed. ... It's going to be a countywide problem. It's not (only) a St. Petersburg problem."

A problem, if it happens, could be especially noticeable in St. Petersburg, which accounts for about 29 percent of all medical-related emergency calls in the county. Of the 138,863 emergency medical calls in the county in 2010, the city responded to 40,254. Of the 89,359 calls from Jan. 1 through Aug. 15, the St. Petersburg Fire Department responded to 25,534.

The county currently pays St. Petersburg about $12.5 million to respond to those calls. But, under LaSala's plan, the city would receive between $4.4 million and $5.3 million.

It's an attempt, Large said, to push EMS funding onto the backs of fire departments and local taxpayers. And, he said, it will adversely impact the delivery of help to both medical and fire emergencies.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

St. Petersburg fire chief opposes EMS funding change proposal 08/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 5:31am]

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