LARGO – The Largo Commission unanimously agreed March 5 to rescind its support of Pinellas County’s plan to prioritize certain 911 calls for medical transport, a plan designed to save money in emergency medical services.
Instead, the city will request that Pinellas County continue to notify the Largo Fire Rescue of all 911 calls and leave it up to the department to respond. Currently, the county provides funding for cities and fire districts in Pinellas to provide emergency medical service.
The county’s change in policy for medical dispatch would require only the private ambulance company Sunstar to respond to calls involving minor falls and sick persons, calls that should only require transportation of the patient to a medical facility. The new cost-saving policy, Phase 3 priority dispatch, is set to go into effect in June.
However, Largo firefighters are among the many opponents to the change. Largo commissioners passed a resolution in support of the county’s plan in September, citing the need for the system to be more “fiscally sustainable.” But by the end of the discussion of the issue March 5, Largo Commissioner Robert Murray said the city’s resolution had been “a little premature.”
“It’s a very fluid situation right now, and I think rescinding it would be the proper thing to do,” he said.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard had called for the commission to address the matter again, after hearing from Largo firefighters eager to have their leaders’ support in rejecting the new policy. At issue is whether the county would withdraw some of its EMS funding as a result of Phase 3.
“They can choose to fund it to a lesser level than they do right now, and we have no control over. But right now we’re not losing funding,” Gerard said. “I don’t think there’s any downside to continuing to respond and gathering information while we do that.”
Fire Chief Mike Wallace explained that – aside from the costs of using the vehicle – Largo Fire Rescue was paid the same amount to keep its firefighters in standby or send them to a call.
“We get paid a flat fee to provide service to the residents within our district. It’s not tied to the number of calls,” he said.
The caveat was that if a station responded to more than 10 calls a day, a threshold only Largo’s busiest stations meet, it’s eligible for an increase in funding. Under the new policy, calls that only require private medical transport and thus shouldn’t involve first responders, won’t be included in the daily call count.
“So continuing to respond becomes more of a policy decision, a philosophical decision. The firefighters are very clear that they want to continue to respond to those calls. Their reasoning is absolutely legitimate, and I support it,” Wallace said.
Wallace also pointed out that Largo firefighters currently respond to those types of calls in non-emergency mode: without emergency lights or sirens, stopping at intersections for red lights.
“We still get there 80 percent of the time in 6.5 minutes. We are still faster than the ambulance waiting at the red lights and waiting to take left turns,” he said. “There is some value in us responding to those calls. But we will not be credited for them.”
At first, Gerard was against rescinding the resolution, stating that she believed “priority dispatch can work.” But her fellow commissioners all said the city needed to continue responding to nonemergency medical calls as a service to its residents.
“There are calls that will slip through the cracks that will be coded as nonemergency, and when someone gets there we’re going to be calling a helicopter because the trauma call is so severe,” Wallace affirmed.
An ongoing Fitch and Associates study – which is supposed to evaluate the benefits of continuing with the system as is, using fire departments to provide ambulance service or some combination of those methods – is due in May. Wallace said the study had to consider the possibility of using the fire departments to transport patients during all emergency calls. Departments across the county already have 23 rescue vehicles that are ambulance-capable, he said.
“We could turn those on tomorrow and start transporting the patients we encounter tomorrow. And I do think absolutely that is the most viable compromise,” he said. “That eliminates priority dispatch.”
Commissioner Woody Brown said he hoped Wallace was right in his prediction. Murray also said he hoped the commission would “let the studies play out and then come back and readdress the issue.”
“I would not want to be one of those 2,100 calls that go out that is nonpriority and be the one having a heart attack,” he said.
Commissioners voted 7-0 to pass a new resolution that rescinded their prior position on priority dispatch.