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EMS Debate Far from Resolved in Florida

PINELLAS, Fla. -- Chiefs are prepared for a long battle, and they're seeking a study on costs.

A year ago, County Administrator Bob LaSala promised to come up with a way to cut the costs of Pinellas' emergency medical services system and have it in place in time for this year's budgeting.

That didn't happen and the EMS system is pretty much unchanged. What has changed is that this time the issue is not going away.

LaSala did come up with a plan to cut costs by taking emergency medical units run by fire departments off the street and by paying all firefighter-paramedics the same wage from county funds, regardless of their actual salaries. LaSala said he could do all this without decreasing services.

That's a promise fire districts, cities and fire chiefs doubted. They fought back and advocated changing the system to allow firefighters to carry patients to hospitals. Under the present system, patients are transported by a private, for-profit company hired by the county. Chiefs and some firefighters and city officials argued that changing over to fire transport would not only save money, it would improve the speed with which patients arrive at hospitals.

It's an idea chiefs have proposed periodically throughout the years, but it has always died away. This time is different, they say. They're prepared for a long battle.

The issue is "definitely not" going away, Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Robert Polk said. Polk is head of the Pinellas Fire Chiefs Association. The association is amassing funds for a study to look at the costs and feasibility of fire transport.

"I think there has been a groundswell of support for fire transport," Polk said.

The day after the County Commission voted in December to renew the contract with the ambulance company, Jim Millican, one of the firefighters who submitted a plan for fire transport, sent out an email that said, in part: "What does (the renewal) mean for the future of fire transport in Pinellas? ... We have work to do."

Millican serves on a committee created by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to choose an accountant to evaluate both LaSala's plan and the fire transport plan he co-authored with fellow firefighter Scott Sanford. That process could last into 2013.

Just because the main uproar over EMS has been temporarily stilled, it's not a condition that is likely to last long. At least two trigger points are expected in the next few months.

One is the implementation of the next phase of priority dispatch, a system designed to get the appropriate equipment to the scene. LaSala and other county officials say it will cut down on calls and save money. They expect to take details of the plan to the County Commission in late February or early March.

The chiefs, who support the concept, disagree with the way the county is planning to overlay priority dispatch on the Pinellas EMS system. It's a bad fit, they say, that won't save money and could endanger lives. At the least, they say, it would delay response times.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said his city will sue if the county goes ahead.

The second trigger point is the budget. County commissioners have said they will not increase taxes again to pay for higher costs from the 18 fire departments that provide EMS. But with no guidelines set, county officials could end up negotiating with each of the 18.



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