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EMS Gets Praise, But Little Else

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Jullette Saussy, MD, was one of 15 women invited to answer a survey to be included in an article on women who provide national leadership in EMS. Click here to read "Words from the Wise: Saussy".

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans City Council members spared no superlative Thursday in praising Emergency Medical Service director Dr. Jullette Saussy and her staff for their work during the Hurricane Gustav evacuation.

The diminutive Saussy "stood as tall as any man" and the first responders deserved an "A-plus," council President Jackie Clarkson gushed.

Saussy graciously accepted the praise. She also had to bite her tongue. It wasn't the time or place, she later said, to remind the council of what had happened in the same chambers just a few days earlier.

On Monday, Saussy sat at the same table and appealed to the council's Housing and Human Needs Committee for a permanent home for her staff of 103 paramedics -- and once again came away empty-handed. The issue wasn't even discussed when the full council gathered Thursday.

More than three years after Katrina chased them from their Moss Street headquarters and flooded 25 of their 40 ambulances, the city's EMS services are still operating out of trailers in an Ernest N. Morial Convention Center parking lot and are still waiting for 15 emergency vehicles.

The paramedics try to stay positive about their treatment, calling themselves the "NOEMS under the bridge" as they gather in their cramped trailers, dodging garbage thrown by motorists off the Crescent City Connection overhead.

"We can deal with the trailers, but the ambulances are a non-negotiable need," Saussy said.

Budget negotiations for 2009 are approaching and it would cost the city $595,000 a year to lease 15 ambulances. But the units can't be purchased off a lot and it takes 120 days or more to build one, after a potentially drawn-out bid process that hasn't begun yet.

EMScould more quickly purchase eight "sprint vehicles," Ford Expeditions or Explorers, to transport patients. That would cost more than $340,000, Saussy said, but the city administrative office said Monday it wants to wait for federal funding for the ambulances.

Deputy City Administrative Officer Cynthia Sylvain Lear said EMS has been in the emergency services facilities plans from the beginning, but the sites offered so far haven't met the unit's needs. But that's not how Saussy remembers it.

In June, the City Council approved the purchase of a warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street to house some police units and the EMS offices. But in the end, Saussy said she was told that the Police Department would need all 92,000 square feet of the warehouse for itself.

The old Moss Street facilities, which also housed the police's 3rd District station, were leased from the state, and the city tried in vain to get the state to fix them up, Lear said. The City Planning Commission already approved a permanent 3rd District police station on Paris Avenue.

Now, Saussy says her staff must look for potential locations while still handling 700 emergency calls a week. It's her job, she said, to keep reminding the council and the administration that her unit exists, as she had to do in 2006 when Mayor Ray Nagin left EMS out of pay raises for first responders after Katrina. At the time, Saussy said she hoped it was just an oversight.

Saussy insists that the lack of a permanent home isn't hurting her paramedics' morale but she's obviously frustrated by being treated as an afterthought.

"They've tried to evict us from the trailers a number of times because the parking lot is owned by the state," she said. "But we're not going anywhere. I call it squatter's rights."

David Hammer can be reached at dhammer@timespicayune.comor 504.826.3322.

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