Call 911 for something minor? A new Pinellas plan might have you waiting a bit longer

The county and cities are weighing a plan that would slow the response for the most minor 911 medical calls, saving the resources for more serious calls.
Callers to 911 with minor injuries may see just an ambulance respond in the future, rather than both a fire & rescue truck plus an ambulance. [Times files]
Callers to 911 with minor injuries may see just an ambulance respond in the future, rather than both a fire & rescue truck plus an ambulance. [Times files]
Published February 11

A stubbed toe, a scraped knee, a twisted ankle.

Call 911 in Pinellas County about any of those injuries and at least four people in two vehicles will show up.

But a new proposal — already implemented in Hillsborough County and across the country — that's being considered by county government and some of the cities, including St. Petersburg, would reduce the response for certain minor medical issues.

The goal: "We preserve our resources for the most severe calls, and ultimately improve our response times on the most critical emergencies," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Division Chief Ian Womack to City Council on Thursday. "The general principle is, if you over-resource low priority calls, that unit is then committed to the low priority call."

Here's how the system works: Every medical call gets classified into one of 32 categories, and is also assigned a level of emergency — alpha is the lowest and echo is a life-threatening situation. Right now in Pinellas County, every call is answered both by a fire department and the county ambulance service, Sunstar. The fire departments do most of the immediate medical work, and Sunstar transports patients to the hospital, which frees up the fire departments to answer the next emergency call, rather than shuttling people to the hospital.

The idea behind the new proposal is to keep fire rescue from responding to every single alpha-level call. Otherwise, if a more urgent call comes in, it gets assigned to another unit from a different district. That could mean the loss of valuable time in a life-threatening situation.

In St. Petersburg, the average response time for fire rescue to incidents that don't warrant emergency lights and sirens is about five minutes. In those same cases, Sunstar responds within about 10 minutes, on average.

Under the new proposal, the alpha levels of two categories, "sick person" and "fall," would only get a Sunstar ambulance.

That means the average wait time for those who call 911 will go up by about five minutes, but it also means fewer instances where fire rescue personnel respond unnecessarily.

And in the event a Sunstar ambulance can't respond within 20 minutes, the call gets rerouted back to fire rescue.

Minor sick person and fall calls represent the No. 1 and 2 reasons why people call 911 in Pinellas, according to Jim Fogarty, the county's director of safety and emergency services. Altering the response would make a significant impact. According to Womack, those calls represent about 16,500 annual 911 calls across the county, and 4,800 in St. Petersburg, or about 8 percent of the city's total calls.

That reintroduced capacity will mean St. Petersburg Fire Rescue can stave off the increasing demand for three years.

It's a resource-saving strategy that already works with police, Womack said. Call about a home intruder, he told City Council, officers show up immediately. Call with a noise complaint? Maybe they come when they can. Nor is it new. The county considered adopting a similar strategy in 2008, though the bid was ultimately dropped.

Hillsborough does something similar, as do departments across the country. Basic life support units, rather than advanced life support units, respond to most alpha-level calls across the bay. Hillsborough's maximum response time is 60 minutes, according to Margaret Hamrick, emergency dispatch center manager with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

She said it's been "absolutely" effective in allocating resources that more closely match the severity of calls.

The union that represents firefighters and paramedics in St. Petersburg, Lealman and South Pasadena opposes the move, said International Association of Fire Fighters Local 747 President Richard E. Pauley Jr., calling it a "decreased level of service."

"When we answer calls, we want residents to be served by our people," he said.

At Thursday's council meeting, Council Member Ed Montanari also expressed concern that under the new proposal, someone could call 911 and get a reduced response when it was a real emergency. Montanari, an airline pilot, said even if the system is more than 95 percent accurate, that's not good enough.

"In my profession, I've got to land the airplane correctly 100 percent of the time," he said.

Womack said that issue is far less prevalent than the opposite problem, when a fire rescue unit that was handling a minor call couldn't make it to a more serious call, and another truck had to respond from further away.

"We would love to land 100 percent of the time, too, but it's just cost prohibitive in the system, and this assumes the smaller piece of risk," he said.

Plus, he said, if the plan doesn't work, the city can opt out any time.

The County Commission will likely take up the proposal in April, and cities that opt in can join after that. St. Petersburg's City Council voted to consider the plan in the Public Safety and Instrastructure Committee.

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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