EMS: Taking a Swipe at Fire-Based EMS

As we all know, it has become fashionable to attack fire departments and firefighters. I wrote about this in my September 2010 column, headlined “Firefighters – From Heroes to Zeros,” and while it may be in vogue to attack firefighters and fire departments by some who are focused on mainly economic issues, they are not eager to bash firefighters when they are having an emergency. They call 911, hang up the phone and look out the window, praying firefighters will show up soon.

These are the same people who are quick to blame firefighters for anything that is wrong with government when actually it is elected officials who make the decisions. Firefighters are instruments of policy, and not policy makers. But then again, these critics are the same people who demand high-quality public service and would not settle for anything less if experiencing an emergency. So when a Santa Clara County, CA, grand jury issued a scathing report in June on fire department operations, it was no surprise.

I believe government has a certain place in our society and that includes the role of public safety. Basically, the Santa Clara grand jury, consisting of citizens with no background in firefighting or EMS, heard testimony and looked at data to arrive at decisions that, in some cases, make no sense. What is also disturbing is some of the testimony the jurors heard, if the grand jury report is correct.

The grand jury called for a complete rethinking of how fire departments operate and termed sending firefighters on fire apparatus to medical calls “outdated and wasteful.” The grand jury did acknowledge, on page 9 of its report, that it heard testimony that the public demands rapid response times. The jurors agreed with that, but said they “heard nothing to indicate the public demand is for a certain type of response. A 911 caller wants help to arrive as soon as possible. It is of little consequence to that caller whether help comes on a fire engine or an ambulance.”

There are some inflammatory comments in the report and one can only assume they came from non-firefighting people, since they are identified only as “interviewees.” Firefighting is described as “the best part-time job in America” and others said, “Well-rewarded firefighters wear golden handcuffs”; and “Firefighters are paid for 23 hours of sitting around for one hour of work.”

In a summary of their findings and recommendations, the grand jury said it was extremely costly to equip a fire department for only occasional fire responses. Additionally, the jurors said, “Whether the emergency responder is a firefighter-paramedic or an EMS paramedic matters little to the person with the medical emergency; using firefighter-paramedics in firefighting equipment as first responders to all non-police emergencies is unnecessarily costly when less expensive paramedics on ambulances possess the skills needed to address the 96% of calls that are not fire related.”

The jurors recommended the private ambulance company be the county’s first responder. The only problem is that private ambulance companies do not typically staff vehicles based on a four-minute response time. Typically, contracts call for response times of eight, nine, 12 and sometimes 15 minutes. To meet a four-minute response time in Santa Clara County, an ambulance company would have to staff significantly more ambulances and have them available for calls. Santa Clara County would have to significantly raise the contract price with the ambulance company. So while the fire department budget probably would remain steady, the community would have to pay more to the ambulance company running first-responder calls.

Why would you want to raise the cost of government to give more money to a private company when you already have strategically and geographically placed resources that can respond to medical emergencies? In bashing fire departments, the grand jury report failed to note that the San Jose firefighters’ new union contract calls for a 10% pay cut and negotiations on pension reforms, as well as allowing more staffing flexibility to further reduce costs.

The rhetoric that came out of the Santa Clara grand jury is almost to be expected these days. I do not see any of this letting up in the foreseeable future. Firefighters must maintain professionalism as we do our jobs. And when those bashers call 911 and want to see us standing outside their doors when they hang up the phone, maybe they will realize the error of their ways.