The City Council renewed a two-year contract Thursday with the University of Texas Health Science Center to operate the city's EMS division, despite continued complaints from the San Antonio Professional Firefighters' Association and an incomplete third-party review of the system.
The city will pay UTHSC $1.43 million in fiscal 2012 and $1.46 million in fiscal 2013 in exchange for state-mandated EMS oversight and training, the contract says.
The renewed contract is cheaper than previous years - this year's contract cost $2.43 million - but some of the savings are because the city wrote a separate contract with the health science center to provide SAFD with a medical director. The medical director contract will cost $615,840 in 2012 and $634,824 in 2013.
Another significant savings comes from a tuition waiver, which has been stipulated in the Texas Education Code since 1971.
Since 2001, the city was contractually obligated to pay firefighters' tuition for training courses. The new contract states the city will save $246,800 annually because of the waiver.
"We never deliberately charged illegal tuition to anyone," said Juanita Wallace, interim dean for UTHSC's school of health professions. "This was the first year that this has ever been brought to our attention by either the city or our own administration."
Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh and Councilman David Medina Jr., who sat on the previous Public Safety Committee and now chairs the current group, say they have no plans to ask UTHSC for back pay for the tuition charges.
"I have not been advised that it was illegal," Medina said Thursday. "I think we need to look at today - it's something that we're doing today. As for the past, I can't speak about that."
The waiver was one of several recommendations made in a draft report by the Ludwig Group that was hired in February to review the EMS training system. The city contracted with the Ludwig Group for $69,900, according to city documents, and so far, the group has submitted two draft reports. A final report is not finished, officials said.
In May, the Public Safety Committee reviewed the first draft report and recommended that council renew the UTHSC contract. But that committee dissolved, and a new committee has not yet met.
"We did brief council in an executive session on the report," said SAFD Chief Charles Hood, "and they were able to voice any concerns."
Medina said the council did its due diligence, adding that the contract was "of great importance to our council, and to the mayor."
But the decision Thursday to renew the contract came in the form of a consent agenda, and the current council has yet to discuss the report's recommendations and how they affect the new contract publicly.
"Why push it through now? If we take time and go through the report, we could save a lot more money," said Chris Steele, president of the firefighters association.
Assistant fire chief Carl Wedige said the contract, which expires Sept. 30, had to be renewed as soon as possible because it's illegal to operate the EMS division without a medical director.
"You start these processes as early as you possibly can," he said. "It's very critical for us to be able to maintain service, and we needed to get it approved sooner than later."
Hood said the new contract includes flexibility for other changes recommended in the Ludwig Group report. SAFD may take over infection control services from UTHSC if the university is notified in writing by July 1, and discussions will continue on the feasibility of a hybrid educational system, with SAFD conducting its own EMT training. Paramedic training will remain a UTHSC responsibility.
"It's going to take money and resources to do that," Hood said, adding that all training was in-house when he joined the Phoenix Fire Department before arriving in San Antonio. "I know the physical commitments that are involved, but we think this is something that we can achieve."
Hood added he does not intend to eventually institutionalize all EMS training and eliminate the UTHSC contract.
"We want to maintain that relationship with the health science center," he said.
Another change in the contract is the separation of the medical director contract, which also was recommended by the Ludwig Group. Now, according to the contract, the medical director - currently Dr. Craig Manifold - will report directly to Hood.
"He had a lot of day-to-day responsibilities of the clinical and didactic portions," Hood said, "and we wanted to give him more reporting responsibilities and more coordination with our office."