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Let Pinellas firefighters ferry the injured? No, panel says

A proposal that would allow firefighters to take injured people to hospitals would be costly and unsafe and should not be adopted, concludes a committee established to study Pinellas emergency services.

But committee members say parts of the plan may have merit and should be part of a larger study of Pinellas EMS service. They also recommend trying the idea in a pilot program.

The plan, the brainchild of Pinellas fire unions, is known as the "hybrid proposal" because it does not fully change the way EMS services are delivered.

"I think everybody agrees there is some value to some (fire department) transportation. We don't know how much," said James Dates, assistant county administrator. "We're all speculating what the numbers would be."

Dates said officials have already recommended there be a comprehensive study of Pinellas EMS delivery. The hybrid proposal should be part of that, he said. Dates also suggested that a pilot program could be tried using one fire vehicle. That, he said, could happen within a year.

Scott Sanford, president of the Palm Harbor/Oldsmar professional firefighters, said he was disappointed in the report. The County Commission, he said, wanted the committee to find a way to see if the hybrid proposal would work. Instead, the committee seemed intent on finding reasons it would not work, he said.

Under the current system, firefighter/paramedics respond to emergency calls but do not take anyone to the hospital. Sunstar ambulances do that job. The goal is to get the firefighter/paramedics back on call as soon as possible in case someone else needs them.

But with the advent of Amendment One and the economic downturn, the county sees the need to reduce expenses or run an estimated $18 million deficit. The County Commission recently passed two resolutions designed to cut costs. The first established the response time firefighter/paramedics must meet when answering emergency calls — within 7½ minutes at least 90 percent of the time. The other set the rules the county will follow in parceling out tax money to each of the county's 19 fire departments for providing EMS services.

Firefighters object to both plans and suggested their hybrid plan could save $7.7 million the first year and $40.7 million over five years by allowing fire department rescue vehicles to take injured people to hospitals. The rescues (those boxlike trucks that look like ambulances) are already on the street and paid for and might as well be running to the hospitals, firefighters say.

But a committee of city managers, city and fire district chiefs, and county administrators looked at the hybrid plan and concluded that it "is too aggressive and not fact-based."

The committee said the plan would be costly because it might make Paramedics Plus, which contracts with Sunstar to provide the ambulance service, increase fees to make up for lost runs. The hybrid proposal would also keep the rescue units off the road for a longer time, meaning it would take longer to respond to 911 calls. In addition, the committee said, the proposal would overburden 14 of the county's rescue vehicles.

Let Pinellas firefighters ferry the injured? No, panel says 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:31am]
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