PHILDELPHIA -- As Philadelphia Fire Department medic units have struggled to answer 9-1-1 calls in recent years, one thing they didn't have to do was plant two ambulances along the Schuylkill during the spring and summer regattas.
That special-event service was provided by private, nonprofit ambulance companies - until this year.
Private ambulance companies say they've been told they're out of the regatta business, and organizers are now being required to pay the city for Fire Department medic crews instead.
"I was totally upset," said Sigmund Fine, president of the nonprofit Rhawnhurst-Bustleton Ambulance, which provided service to several regattas in recent years. "We look forward to this. It helps us out with our coffers, and the city doesn't have the manpower."
Opinions differ about whether the new policy will affect 9-1-1 service, but the city should net some revenue from it.
Nonprofit ambulance services usually earn about $5,000 by staffing a regatta for two days. Those payments now go to the city's general fund.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who's been harshly critical of slow response times by city medic crews, said he couldn't understand the change.
"Why would we do that?" Butkovitz asked during an interview last week. "If we're hard-pressed to provide fire-rescue service for the city, why would we dedicate units for this specialized service?"
Mayor Nutter added five ambulances in February in response to concerns about slow response times, but Butkovitz said his study showed that about 20 were needed to get the city up to national response-time standards.
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said that the city often provides coverage for special events, and that any units assigned to the regattas would be staffed with overtime and would not impede 9-1-1 response.
"We're not going to take a company from the middle of North Philadelphia and sit them down on the river," Ayers said Friday.
What's unclear is where the notion to replace private ambulances with city crews came from.
Ayers said he had nothing to do with such a decision. Mayor Nutter's press office did not return calls for comment.
Two private ambulances and one regatta organizer said the policy was communicated by staff of the Fairmount Park Commission, which controls the area along Kelly Drive.
Commission chief of staff Barry Bessler said that the commission has always encouraged but not required organizers to use city ambulance crews.
"We have not changed what we have done in the past," Bessler said.
But Commodore Clete Graham of the Schuylkill Navy, which runs the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and several others, said he was told in discussions with Fairmount Park staff that emergency medical services would be different this year.
"They said the Fire Department is going to be offering this service this year," Graham said. Asked if it was offered as an option, Graham said: "It was pretty much mandatory."
"We've used Rhawnhurst ambulances in the past," Graham said. "They treated us fine, the prices were fine, but we had to tell them we're not going to use them."
Graham said he thinks the city's service may be an improvement, as the Fire Department will also provide personnel moving through the spectator area on Segway transporters.