DUNEDIN – Pinellas County has been revamping its emergency services system and has already implemented several phases of the plan. However, the next stage that is set to go through is “Phase 3,” which relates to priority dispatch.
Representatives from the Dunedin Fire Department came before the Dunedin City Commission at its Aug. 23 meeting to express strong reservations about key aspects of this plan. Maureen Freaney, assistant county administrator, also spoke in front of the commission in defense of the plan. Ultimately, the commission agreed with the fire department and unanimously voted to send a resolution to the county that explains how the city disagrees with this phase and strongly urges the commission to not implement this phase at least until a detailed study comes back with more information.
The county’s plan would limit the responding units in certain low-priority medical assist calls.
“This proposal will change the current system of sending a (Dunedin Fire Department) advanced life support unit to any request for medical assistance,” according to a memo to City Manager Rob DiSpirito from Dunedin Fire Department Deputy Chief Jeffrey Parks. “It would allow for the private ambulance company to respond to calls that fit a non-emergency response without the knowledge or assistance of that DFD unit. If the ambulance has a response time of over 15 minutes, it can then request that DFD respond a unit to the incident. There are a select number of scenarios that fit into a ‘falls’ and/or ‘sick persons’ category that will be affected by this change. It is anticipated that approximately 800 calls will occur in the city that fit into these categories in which only an ambulance will respond.”
The main reason why the fire department is so opposed to this proposal is because its own average response time for all calls is 4.5 minutes, Parks said. This is because of a strategic distribution of three fire stations throughout the city. However, there are a fewer number of available ambulances in the county, and they do not have fixed locations, so their response time is much longer, averaging 10 minutes countywide.
Freaney said that EMS response time countywide averages 7.10 minutes and ambulances are 10 minutes. However, countywide, 71.1 percent of these calls end up needing transportation by ambulance, but in Dunedin, only 58 percent of these calls need transportation. Therefore, Parks and Fire Chief Bud Meyer said that for Dunedin, switching first-responders to only the ambulance versus firefighter EMS units makes no sense. They argued that it would be tying up the fewer and more critical ambulances for the calls that actually need emergency transportation, plus it would take much longer for them to get there.
“We don’t oppose priority dispatch and the nationwide use of it,” Meyer said. “It’s a very good thing. What we’re opposing here is the phase 3 part of this.”
Meyer then asked how many EMS first-responders there are in the county, to which he was told about 68. He then asked on any given day how many ambulances are available. He was told 25-40 during the peak times.
“Okay, so we have a whole bunch more first responders, and ambulances are the scarce resources. So if we’re going to save something for the big call, why are we saving the first responders, when we have 68 of them versus on any given day, 20 to 40 ambulances?”
Freaney had argued that if the fire EMS are out at a minor call when a big emergency call comes in, that it would take them longer to be able to get there. She gave a real example of fire first-responders being on a minor call when a heart attack call comes in, so they had to send a second engine from another station to that higher-priority call. She said she believes ultimately the person died.
“But that’s the part that’s really triage,” Freaney said. “Preserving your resources so you’re not tying them up on minor issues and they’re being saved for the major ones. So that’s really the most important issue.”
Meyer said that the same is true when it’s the other way around with ambulances, and either way, this is always the risk. However, Dunedin has two other stations it can send trucks from and still probably be at the call first.
“Not sending us on these calls is not going to prevent us from being on a minor fire call,” Meyer said. “A dumpster fire, when a major fire occurs. Every unit has that potential of being on a minor call, doing something, when something more important happens. That’s going to happen because we’re providing two services with this vehicle. We provide fire service, and we provide EMS service. We can be at a broken arm call – that’s a high-priority call for us – when a heart attack may occur. That’s a bigger priority.”
Commissioners Julie Ward Bujalski and Dave Carson said it seems like an obvious cut in service to have only ambulances respond to these calls in Dunedin if their own fire department can arrive on-scene in three to four minutes and ambulances can’t arrive for seven to 10 minutes.
Already the cities of St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Safety Harbor as well as special fire districts Palm Harbor and Pinellas Suncoast have or are in the process of approving resolutions to oppose phase 3 as it is currently written.
There is a study that is about to commence on EMS throughout the county, and all of the commission expressed interest in hearing the results of the study before taking any steps forward with this plan.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers agreed with all of the opposition.
“This is only 10 percent of the calls, and I would just like to err on the side of caution,” Eggers said. “A big reason is I just don’t want to change right now. We have a year, we’re going to get the study, and then we’re going to possibly – not for sure – change again. I just think our folks have gotten used to a certain level of service. … There are still a lot of questions here for me. … If I’m the one that’s suffering, if I think I need assistance, I want them (Dunedin first-responders) there in the 4.5 minutes, and I have faith in them.”
The commission unanimously agreed to send a resolution to the county to wait to implement any changes until after the study comes back.