Pinellas lawmaker threatens legislation taking EMS from county
LARGO - A state lawmaker on Monday threatened to file legislation creating a separate EMS governing board for Pinellas County if county leaders go forward with a plan to reduce emergency service. Sen. Jack Latvala unveiled his proposal at the tail end of a meeting of the Pinellas County legislative delegation. The bill, which Latvala said he might file in 2014, would create a new government agency made up of city and county officials. It would oversee emergency services in Pinellas – a responsibility that now falls to the county government. "Kind of what you would call a shot over the bow," Latvala said.Latvala's threat follows a contentious vote and debate this month over how emergency responders should handle low-priority medical calls. Beginning June 1, the county's 911 dispatchers will only send an ambulance to about 14,000 low-priority medical calls. But, under pressure from local fire chiefs, county commissioners agreed to continue relaying low-priority calls to fire stations and give fire officials discretion about whether to also send a fire truck. Now, fire trucks and ambulances both respond to such 911 calls. The commissioners' decision violates an agreement to wait for the results of a study, due to be published in June, of what Pinellas can do to cut costs for emergency response, Latvala said. Had the county commission stuck with its original plan, which was to implement the new policy within weeks of its Jan. 15 approval, things would be different. "I carefully considered the possibility of introducing it this year," Latvala said. "Let's see what the study shows and what the county does about it." Pinellas County pays roughly $40 million to 18 fire districts, whose firefighters are cross-trained as EMTs. Every fire truck that responds to a 911 call has at least one firefighter trained as a paramedic. Fire trucks respond because they can usually arrive faster than the ambulances. Supporters of the county's proposal said it would reduce waste, given how often 911 is used for nonemergencies. But fire officials said not sending fire trucks to every medical call would endanger people's lives and that 911 callers don't always know the extent of their emergencies when they call for help. Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long defended the move as consistent with the concerns of voters to whom she spoke while campaigning last year. "I can assure you that people don't want to continue paying for an ambulance and a fire truck," she said. Many people, for example, call 911 for issues as innocuous as not being to take a ring, she said. "I don't consider that an emergency," Long said. "And that is what we're talking about … defining the word 'emergency.'"
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