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Pinellas could save millions if fire-rescue vehicles could transport victims, officials say

The county's firefighters say they have a better way to cut the cost of emergency medical services — let them do more.

Specifically, firefighters want the right to take victims to hospitals. Under the current system, firefighter/paramedics answer emergency calls, but they are not allowed to take anyone to a hospital. Sunstar ambulances do that job. The idea is to get the firefighter/paramedics back on the street as soon as possible in case they're needed again.

The firefighters call their plan the "hybrid proposal" because it does not completely change the current method of delivering emergency medical care in Pinellas. The proposal has the support of Pinellas County's fire chiefs and the county staff is evaluating the idea to see whether it has merit. It is unclear when that evaluation might be done.

The firefighters say their plan takes advantage of the fact that their vehicles, known as rescues (they're the boxlike trucks that look like ambulances), are already on the street and paid for. Allowing the rescues to take victims to hospitals would mean less time the hurt person would spend waiting for an ambulance and would mean that ambulances would not have to come to all calls.

The firefighters estimate their plan could save $7.7 million the first year and $40.7 million over five years. The county would save because it would not have to pay the ambulance company the $234 it gets every time someone is taken to the hospital. At about 41,000 transports a year, the money adds up.

But that could risk Pinellas' contract with Paramedics Plus, the Texas company that provides service for Sunstar, said Dick Williams, the county's director of public safety services. If those 41,000 runs disappeared, he said, the company would have to re-evaluate the wisdom of continuing to provide service.

That may not be a bad thing, according to the proposal, which suggests the county could eventually move to a fire-based EMS transport model in which firefighters take most or all victims to hospitals.

Firefighters came up with the plan in response to a county proposal to evaluate the way EMS is handled in Pinellas. The County Commission last month passed two resolutions that firefighters and fire chiefs opposed.

The first resolution established the response time that firefighter/paramedics must meet when going to medical calls. The standard, which is the same that cities and fire districts have followed for years, is to respond within 7 1/2 minutes at least 90 percent of the time. The other set the rules the county will use in deciding how much tax money to give each of the county's 19 fire departments for providing EMS service.

Firefighters and their chiefs objected to the first resolution because they say it will slow current response times. They object to the second because they say it will mean the loss of several rescue trucks and jobs. That, they say, will lengthen response times and reduce the service that residents now receive.

But county officials say that will not happen. The average response time across the county is about 4 1/2 minutes and that likely won't change. And, county administrator Bob LaSala said, there is nothing to prevent a city from beefing up service with its own tax money. LaSala said the county, which is facing an $18 million deficit in EMS for the coming year, does not plan to raise property taxes when other ways can be found to be more efficient.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or alindberg@sptimes.com.

Pinellas could save millions if fire-rescue vehicles could transport victims, officials say 04/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 5, 2009 3:45pm]

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