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Minor EMS changes could save Pinellas $6.3 million, report says

CLEARWATER - A long-awaited report aimed at calming Pinellas County’s long-brewing emergency medical service battle was released Thursday. Prepared by consultant Fitch and Associates at a cost of nearly $300,000, the report doesn’t recommend going to extremes to keep the county’s “world-class” EMS system from going broke. Instead, the report suggests keeping things the same and saving money by fine-tuning. Cumulatively, those changes could save the county $6.3 million a year, according to the report. “[The report] indicated that it’s a high-performing, clinically strong system,” said Bruce Moeller, director of Pinellas County Public Safety Services. “There are a couple of places where there was excess capacity in the system.” For years, Pinellas’ EMS system has pitted cities against the county, which has been trying to reduce the amount of money it spends on emergency response vehicles. This year, the county has about $45 million budgeted for EMS, distributed among 18 separate fire districts and the private SunStar ambulance company.
Some county officials have long been calling for an EMS overhaul. Supporters of such an overhaul say the standard practice of sending a fire truck in addition to an ambulance in response to all 911 calls was excessive and could stand to be cut. Critics of the practice complained that county EMS resources were being wasted responding to nonemergency medical calls, such as people with digestive problems or stubbed toes. Of the 140,000 911 calls Pinellas gets each year, about 14,000 were classified as “falls” and “sick persons.” In January, the Pinellas County Commission voted to send only an ambulance to those low-priority calls but agreed to notify fire departments in those cases, giving them the option of sending units themselves. The decision sparked criticism from local cities and fire departments and the threat of a lawsuit from the City of St. Petersburg. Municipalities and fire departments argued that fire trucks often beat ambulances to the scene, that dispatchers don’t always know whether a call is a true medical emergency and that not sending fire trucks to every call would mean cutting firefighters. The Fitch report recommends reducing staffing at night, when there are fewer calls, and using fire departments as the primary agencies responding to low-priority medical calls. Shortly after the commission’s decision, state Sen. Jack Latvala threatened to file legislation creating an agency that would yank EMS oversight out of the county’s hands. The commission ultimately took the cuts off the table until the Fitch report was released. County officials will now review the report and begin discussing ways to trim costs – decisions that are overdue and badly needed, said Commissioner Janet Long, a critic of what she characterizes as excesses in the EMS system. “This issue has been percolating for 30 years or more,” Long said. “I’m hoping that there’s going to be some pathway to finding an avenue for some sustainability.” Moeller said the county’s EMS Special Committee expects to talk about the report June 24th, and the county commission is likely to tackle it July 19th.

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