Bruce Moeller, director of Public Safety Services, explains the latest plan to contain costs of the county’s Emergency Medical Services during a Feb. 4 work session.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Robert Polk, president of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, talks about some of the concerns with the latest plan that cuts funding for staff during the nighttime hours.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County’s Emergency Medical Services is among the best in the nation. But that quality comes at a price that is getting harder and harder to afford.
For years, staff has been looking for ways to cut costs without damaging response times and service. Prior studies and plans were rejected. Relationships between the county and the municipalities and fire districts that provide first responder services have become strained.
Still, something has to be done before the EMS millage rate reaches the cap and the reserve fund is depleted.
Staff’s most recent proposal comes from recommendations by consultant Fitch and Associates. Implementation of the recommended CARES model calls for reduced staffing of fire stations during nighttime hours when activity is at its lowest.
CARES stands for Community-wide Alignment of Resources for Efficiency and Service. Fitch says using a CARES-2 could save Pinellas millions of dollars over time.
Under the proposed new funding model, no change is recommended for Dunedin, East Lake, Gulfport, Madeira Beach, Oldsmar, Pinellas Suncoast, Safety Harbor, South Pasadena, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island. Increased funding is proposed for Palm Harbor, Seminole and Tarpon Springs. Decreased funding is planned for Clearwater, Largo, Lealman, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg.
The reductions would be phased in over three years. Staff estimates a savings of $2.3 million in fiscal year 2014-2015. St. Petersburg takes the biggest hit with a reduction of more than $1 million over three years. Clearwater’s funding would go down $669,690; Largo, $527,566; Pinellas Park, $504,789; and Lealman, $285,454.
Tarpon Springs’ funding would increase by $381,531. Palm Harbor would receive $240,740 more. Seminole would get an increase of $143,945 in part to pay for service to Redington Beach and Redington Shores.
Currently, the county pays for two positions per rescue truck 24 hours a day for 48 hours of funding. Under CARES, two positions per rescue truck would be funded for 14 hours a day plus one position on an engine for 10 hours for 38 hours of funding. The number of funded positions would go from 84 to 79.28.
Bruce Moeller, director of Public Safety Services, said that staffing changes would not affect the county’s average response time of 7 minutes 30 seconds 90 percent of the time. Speaking at a Feb. 4 work session, Moeller said response time improvements are predicted for service to Tarpon Springs, Redington Beach, Redington Shores, Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach and areas serviced by Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District. Response time decreases of a few seconds are possible in Clearwater, Largo, Lealman, Oldsmar, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and St. Petersburg.
County Administrator Bob LaSala is optimistic about the plan, estimating savings of $18 million to $20 million in the first three years, if you add in cost avoidance. In 10 years, savings could mount up to $58 million to $60 million, he said.
LaSala said he reviewed the plan with mayors and city managers from 14 cities and four fire districts. Leaders from Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Oldsmar, Clearwater, Seminole, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island reportedly said they were prepared to recommend the changes.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time,” said Commissioner Ken Welch. “I hope we can bring it in for a landing.”
Moeller reported that CARES 2 does reduce overall response times by about 5 seconds, but said the increase should not affect the average of 7 ½ minutes 90 percent of the time. Most calls currently are answered in about 4 ½ minutes.
LaSala said staff would work with the 18 providers of first responder services to create more efficiency.
“We’ll look to see if we can address the 5 seconds by how we assign calls throughout the system,” he said.
Lealman Fire Chief Richard Graham believes the new plan will decrease the level of service.
“I understand it will save money, but what is a life worth,” he said.
He disagrees with the Fitch study’s assessment that the EMS system has excess capacity. He said the reserve capacity built into the system is needed to ensure response. In addition, he said, the plan shifts the costs of the system to the “fire side.”
Graham expressed his dismay that county staff had not scheduled a private meeting with him to talk about the details. He wants to know exactly how the changes will affect Lealman.
“It is déjà vu,” said Commissioner Janet Long, referring to past discussions on EMS when the staff presentation differed from the view of the fire departments.
Robert Polk, president of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, said, “It’s a never-ending dilemma,” adding that his words were “not intended to fuel a debate.”
One of his concerns is the plan to freeze costs after the end of three years of cost reductions. His bigger issue is taking units off the street.
“Something has to suffer,” he said.
He advocates more meetings and more discussion. He is concerned about the ability to respond to fires that involve injuries in the middle of the night with fewer resources.
“There is a cost in readiness,” he said. “We have to accept that.”
Despite, his concerns, Polk said he believed the latest plan is “closer than ever” to something all sides can support.
He added that the county’s fire chiefs had not yet met to discuss the recently released proposal.
“Who is getting money and who is not, that’s a cloudy issue,” he said.
He agreed with Graham that individual meetings between fire departments and county staff were necessary for everyone to understand the effect of the proposed changes.
LaSala said he planned to work with the decision makers for each of the 18 service providers – not necessarily the fire chiefs.
LaSala then left the room.
“This is not the first time we’ve been subject to this type of behavior,” Polk said.
He pointed out that a city manager was not a decision maker.
Polk, who also is chief of Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District, said he was offended to be “diminished and belittled” at commission meetings.
He talked about recent incidents that had taxed Pinellas County’s resources to the maximum. He said storms tax the system to “absolute maximum.”
“And you never know when they’re coming,” he said. “Hurricanes don’t sneak up on us, but they tax our resources.”
He said due to the county’s vulnerability when access to the mainland was lost when bridges were closed, it was important to be more self-sufficient than landlocked counties.
LaSala returned to the meeting and apologized to Polk, saying he had not meant to “demean you or others.”
Palm Harbor Fire Commissioner Norm Atherton said he believed the county had negotiated in “good faith” a deal that he would recommend to his board. However, he also had some concerns about certain aspects and the lack of communication.
“Communication is never perfect,” said Commission Chair Karen Seel. “But I pledge that each fire department will receive a presentation.”
Seel added that as of Feb. 2, she had served on the commission for 15 years.
“EMS and fire have been contentious issues,” she said.
“It’s been a journey these last 14 years for some of us here,” Morroni said. “It’s upsetting that there is still a communication issue going on here.”
Commissioner Charlie Justice said it was difficult to make a decision when one side says EMS is subsidizing fire service and the other side says EMS is not paying for itself.
“The important thing is that we’re close,” Commissioner Norm Roche said.