It was a busy evening July 8 for the Fire Service in Everett, as the City Council squared off in a debate on whether or not to fund the in-house ambulance effort, and heard the long-awaited results of a comprehensive Fire Study commissioned by the City.
The Council did vote in the ambulance 10-0, but only after a push was made by Councilor Michael McLaughlin to cut the ambulance funding – which failed by a vote of 3-7.
The focus of the evening was squarely on the ambulance funding, which was a $250,000 expenditure in the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that would be used to purchase the first ambulance in the effort. The City has already hired 18 new firefighter/EMTs for the move, and all are currently in training with Cataldo Ambulance for the EMT certification. Most will head to the Fire Academy this summer and fall. With 67 percent of calls over the last five years for medical calls, the City is looking to transition the Fire Service to not only fight fires, but also to respond to ambulance calls in the City – a major change whose timing has been question by the Fire Union, thus creating some controversy on the vote July 8.
The issue for the union has been that this is a major change, and needs to be talked out first and negotiated. While they back the concept, they want their manpower numbers to be restored to 102 firefighters before embarking on the ambulance crusade.
That was the backdrop for a vigorous debate that’s been boiling for several months, and has been mixed up at the same time in the comprehensive fire study – which looked at the ambulance and many other aspects of the Fire Service.
“The ambulance is coming,” said Chief Tony Carli. “(The union) said it; I said it. It’s coming. At the end, there will be an ambulance so let’s vote it through and get the ball rolling and maybe that will light a fire under us to get the negotiations done. There is enough staff.”
Inserted Union President Craig Hardy, “That is an opinion. That’s not law.”
Hardy said they just want to understand the change first, but there has been little effort thus far to engage with the union on what he described as a “big change” in working conditions.
“There’s so much to talk about,” he said. “We’re opposed to beginning an ambulance before we get our numbers back up to 102. We need to do a lot more things before purchasing an ambulance and putting the cart before the horse…Our membership isn’t opposed to it, but we need to talk about and negotiate it. This is a big change for our membership.”
A lot of the decision-making on the ambulance was based on the comments and recommendations about the ambulance in the Fire Study – which covered much more than just the ambulance.
Donald Bliss, of Municipal Resources, conducted the Fire Study and heavily recommended the in-house ambulance transition – and when pushed he said there was enough staff on board to staff both fire and ambulance.
“It’s our opinion that you can staff an ambulance and staff your Fire Department operations,” he said.
Hardy pointed out that Bliss also mentioned in the Study that the Fire Service should be restored by using a long-lingering federal grant to hire eight firefighters. The City has balked at that grant, called the SAFER grant, as it only funds the first few years of the firefighter salary, and then the City has to pay moving forward. Hardy pointed out that Bliss said the City should use the SAFER grant to hire eight firefighters, and then when the grant is running out, new revenues from the in-house ambulance service could cover the costs of those firefighters.
Overall, Bliss was very high on the idea of the City running its own service, and said he recommended they start with one ambulance, and continue contracting with Cataldo Ambulance during the transition. He said he recommended having a final number of three ambulances and one spare to cover all of the City’s calls – implemented over time.
“I can give you a very clear and unequivocal answer to the questions about running an ambulance, and the answer is yes,” he said. “Fire-based EMS ambulance service is not only effective for patient care, but also is a cost-effective utilization of you City resources, personnel and equipment. It provides a high-quality of service to the citizens of the city. We believe a Fire-based service will not only improve response times, but also provide a revenue stream to cover the cost of that service…As you move forward and take on more and more of the transport calls, your revenue stream will cover more than enough of the cost for the ambulance and the staffing.”
That strong testimony, in the end, was likely what propelled the measure to an approval – as it has been an initiative stuck before the Council for some nine months or more.
Hardy said the union was disappointed that the Council went forward before tending to their concerns, but reiterated they don’t oppose the concept of having the Fire Service operate and staff an in-house ambulance service.
“At the end of the day, they did spend the money and got the ambulance,” he said. “We’re not opposed to it, but we don’t want to rush a big change like this…We need to be restored to the 102 positions we were budgeted for pre-ambulance.”
The ambulance takes about six months from purchase to delivery, Carli said. The new hires that will be charged with helping staff the new service are currently in training for EMT certification, or are on ride-alongs training with Cataldo. Most, Carli said, will attend the state Fire Academy in July, August and October. A new ambulance service could be in place potentially by Jan. 1, 2022.