It defies common sense to send both a fire engine and a private ambulance to answer 911 calls in Pinellas County about sore throats, fevers and hiccups. Yet most of the county's fire departments continue to protect their turf and don't want to let the private Sunstar ambulance company handle those low-priority calls. The County Commission voted 4-3 Tuesday to give those calls to Sunstar ambulances, but the opposition from fire departments and the commission's discussion reaffirmed how difficult it will be to make the system more efficient and affordable.
The change in dispatch will affect about 15,000 EMS calls a year, or just about 10 percent of all calls. While Sunstar ambulances will take these low-priority calls, the fire departments still will be alerted and may show up as well. And the change is delayed until June 1. Despite all of those concessions, the changes provoked another lawsuit threat from St. Petersburg and passed the commission by just one vote.
Commissioners Susan Latvala, Janet Long, John Morroni and Karen Seel voted for the sensible change. Commissioners Charlie Justice, Norm Roche and Ken Welch voted against it. They wanted to wait for a consultant's report this spring about a broader overhaul of the EMS system. But as Latvala pointed out, the fire departments aren't likely to be any happier when the consultant's report comes out — regardless of what it says.
The Pinellas EMS system, in which fire departments are the first responders and Sunstar transports patients to hospitals, is effective but no longer affordable. Pinellas has raised property taxes and raided reserves to keep it going, and there are going to have to be significant changes to reduce costs while maintaining quality. Tuesday's vote was another tiny step in the right direction, but it reaffirmed how difficult real reform will be to achieve.