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Should fire departments be consolidated?

Two weeks ago, Pinellas County officials said full funding for paramedic services next year was in jeopardy because of Amendment 1.

Last week, county commissioners solved the problem by voting to tap into about $970,000 in emergency medical services reserves.

With the bump from reserves, county funding for first responders next year is about $41-million, which is generated by a separate EMS property tax.

Commissioners didn't stop there.

To make the system more efficient and less costly, officials plan in coming months to review the first-responder program and EMS transports and start talking about consolidating services, interim County Administrator Fred Marquis told commissioners last week.

And in October 2009, the county plans to terminate all the five-year contracts it signed with cities last October and renegotiate future contracts.

Paramedics respond to medical emergencies from 19 fire agencies, and Sunstar Emergency Medical Services has an exclusive contract with the county for its ambulances to take people to the hospital.

The St. Petersburg Times reported in April that officials acknowledge that the current system of sending both fire-rescue and private ambulances to virtually every medical call is costly. Sending fewer fire units to minor medical calls could save up to $10-million over a decade, advocates say.

The possibility of changes — especially the idea that fire departments could transport some people to hospitals — appeals to some local officials. They're ready to talk.

"It's an opportunity for us to sit down together and put together a plan that works for everyone," Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said.

• • •

A few years ago, Marquis' comments about consolidation might have riled local fire chiefs. But not now.

"I don't know that consolidation is a bad word from a general perspective," said Seminole fire Chief Dan Graves, president of Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association.

Chiefs have been talking about the possibility of regional consolidation, maybe grouping area departments or smaller departments with larger ones.

But despite being open to some concessions on consolidation, fire officials still oppose creating one countywide fire district, an idea floated time and time again by county officials.

"If you were to look at making Pinellas County one fire department, you end up with a money-guzzling behemoth, kind of like the School Board," Graves said.

Fire chiefs say they felt the concept was forced on them in the past.

In 2005, as part of the county charter review process, the county asked for the third update of a previous study on fire service. That update found that the county could save more than $15-million a year by consolidating into one district.

But the chairman of the review commission, Alan Bomstein, said such a system might cost hundreds of millions to implement if it required the consolidated district to buy the assets of the municipal departments.

• • •

Now fire officials say Marquis and other county leaders are making more of an effort to include them in discussions about fire service.

"It's the first time I've heard a willingness to discuss the transport issue at his level. It's the first time I've heard the consolidation talk go from all or nothing to a more conceptually practical approach," said St. Petersburg fire Chief James Large.

"Nobody until now wanted to be a partner in trying to fix this," Graves said. "The winds are changing and the county administration has some new people and they're very interested in trying to fix it."

While both sides appear in a mood to compromise, Graves acknowledged that there may be some past animosity to work through.

"You can't take years of getting beat up and turn that off in one day," Graves said. "We're moving in a good direction, but I'm sure there's going to be some speed bumps."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Should fire departments be consolidated? 07/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 4:25pm]
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