Beginning June 1, dispatchers will send only an ambulance to respond to 911 calls for minor falls and sick persons.
CLEARWATER – The majority of Pinellas County Commissioners said yes Jan. 15 to staff’s request to approve use of phase 3 medical priority dispatch.
Commissioners Charlie Justice, Norm Roche and Ken Welch voted against the resolution that changes the rules of operation for the countywide 911 system.
Under phase 3, only a Sunstar ambulance will respond to 911 calls classified as non-emergency, including calls from sick persons and certain types of falls. Phase 3 eliminates dual response by fire department first responders and a Sunstar ambulance. In addition, the ambulance would not use lights or sirens when responding to non-emergency 911 calls.
The county’s Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council and EMS Medical Director Dr. Dave Bowden recommended implementation of phase 3. The EMS Medical Control Board approved it, which Public Safety Director Bruce Moeller said would have been enough to put the change into operation.
However, due to objections by Belleair Bluffs, Dunedin, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, St. Petersburg, South Pasadena, as well as fire districts in East Lake, Lealman, Palm Harbor and the Pinellas Suncoast, staff decided to bring the matter to the commission.
Those objecting say they have no problem with the concept of priority dispatch or the first two phases that are currently in use. But they’re not happy with phase 3, which they say would downgrade EMS service provided to their citizens.
Pinellas County implemented phase 1 of priority dispatch in April 2009. It consolidated 911 functions into one call center for an annual savings of $500,000. Phase 2, which calls for only fire department response to certain non-emergency calls, began December 2010, and reduced ambulance responses by about 5.6 percent a year, resulting in reduced ambulance costs.
Phase 3 would eliminate the use of first responders for minor falls and sick person calls. First responders would continue to go out to all life-threatening calls and all other low severity calls. Staff estimates that first responses would be reduced by about 14,000 calls a year for a 10 percent reduction. They say the change also would reduce complaints from the public and elected officials about dual response to every emergency call.
Staff amended phase 3 plans to require dispatchers to alert fire departments when calls for non-emergency help come in from their area. Prior plans did not call for notification. Fire departments can choose to respond or not, which some said could cause confusion. Another objection is the difference in time it takes to get help from a fire department first responder versus an ambulance.
Dissenters also worry that dispatchers will make a mistake and send only an ambulance when a first responder is needed. Robert Polk, president of the Pinellas County Fire Chief’s Association, talked about a 911 call that came in Jan. 14 about a child who had fallen. First responders were dispatched to respond without sirens, when they arrived on scene they found out the 2-year-old boy had a broken limb.
Moeller said it was not unheard of for dispatchers to upgrade a call. Statistics show upgrades happening in less than 1 percent of calls. He said the upgrades were made prior to units arriving on scene. He said it was more likely for a unit to be unavailable to respond to an emergency because a unit was involved in a non-emergency call than for a dispatcher to send the wrong type of response.
He said units were unavailable for emergency calls 15 percent of the time, but staff could not separate instances of response to non-emergency calls from other reasons a unit might be unavailable, such as personnel being out for training.
Commissioners acknowledged that there was “a lot of misinformation” about phase 3, which was causing concern among the public and advocated an education program to help people know what to say to get the proper response to a 911 call. Commissioner Morroni suggested that the commission approve phase 3 but delay implementation until April to give time for an education campaign.
County Administrator Bob LaSala advocates beginning phase 3 as soon as possible, so as much information about potential savings would be available to prepare the budget for the next fiscal year.
Polk and others against the use of phase 3 asked commissioners to wait until the results came back from a study by Fitch and Associates about changes to the EMS system. Fitch is looking at the benefits of continuing as is with Sunstar providing all ambulance transport, using fire departments to provide ambulance service or some combination of methods. Results of the study are expected to be available by May.
Officials are hopeful that the Fitch study will help answer the question of whether a private ambulance company or local fire departments can provide the best and more affordable ambulance service in Pinellas.
Welch argued that moving forward with phase 3 with so many objecting could be counterproductive to the main goal of restructuring the entire system. The city of St. Petersburg has threatened to sue if the county implements the change.
“You’re missing the issue,” Welch said. “Education is not the issue with those opposed because they feel we’re violating their rights and responsibilities within their district.”
Justice, Roche and Welch said it would be best to table phase 3 until after findings from the Fitch study are revealed.
Welch said there was no financial benefit to implement phase 3 now.
“But there is a lot of animosity,” he said.
In the end, Morroni amended his motion to make phase 3 effective June 1.