Lincoln Fire Department Wins Bitter EMS Fight

While most of the country was riveted to TV sets on election night in November to see who would become the next president of the United States, many in Lincoln, NE, were immersed with the election results of a highly charged and emotional ballot issue...


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After the proposals went public, the detractors of the fire department were in full force ripping into the fire department's proposal although it called for more assets for less money. Rural/Metro's proposal called for maintaining the status quo with a minimum of four crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the meantime, the Lancaster Medical Society continued with its simple-minded argument that more is not better. The fire department proposal called for a workforce of 70 paramedics, but the physicians said only 25 to 30 paramedics were needed in the community.

In late May 2000, the physicians group let egos and political opinion affect patient care in the community. A proposal was put on the table to downgrade the Lincoln Fire Department paramedics who were operating from advanced life support engines to emergency medical technicians (EMTs), thus denying them the ability to perform advanced procedures.

In early June, the review committee submitted its analysis of the proposals to Wesley. After reviewing the report from the review committee, citing "better, faster, cheaper" service, the mayor chose the fire department and recommended that independent medical oversight of the new system continue with EMS Inc., an independent body already financed by the community to medically oversee the current system.

After Wesley chose the fire department, the debate heated up more with the City Council set to vote on the mayor's recommendation. Turning up the political fight, Rural/Metro mailed a letter to 2,700 subscription customers. It stated, "Rural/Metro is very concerned that the risky proposed government run ambulance service does not have documented plans to continue your ambulance service."

During that period, Rural/Metro was shutting down operations in other cities, losing executives and failing to meet debt obligations. Citizens who were outraged at the attempts to sway public opinion and supported the fire department proposal organized a group called Citizens for Outstanding Response in an Emergency (CORE). The group was not connected to the Lincoln firefighters, but believed the fire department had the best proposal.

After a six-hour heated debate before the City Council which included name-calling, finger-pointing, grandstanding, charges, countercharges and posturing, the council voted 4-3 in favor of the mayor's recommendation and the fire department's proposal. Councilman Jonathan Cook said, "Having a single integrated system under one umbrella makes the most sense."

But that was not the end of the controversy in Lincoln. A group of citizens, businesspeople and physicians who were unhappy with the City Council vote started a petition drive to halt the council's ambulance decision. The group, calling itself Supporters of Ambulance Value and Excellence (SAVE), was intent on putting an amendment on the ballot devising a new process for selecting an ambulance provider. Eventually, the group gained enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot for Nov. 7, 2000. In response, the CORE group that supported the firefighters changed its name to "Vote NO to Save Lives." Voting no meant you were against the city chart amendment devising a new process for selecting an ambulance provider.

Between the petition drive and the vote itself, the bitterness and rancor continued, with some physicians in the community still arguing that they should be in charge. But not all physicians in the community supported the views of the medical society. Many physicians supported the firefighters and some even held a press conference emphasizing their beliefs.

Leading up to the vote, a political campaign was waged by CORE (Vote No to Save Lives) and SAVE. Yard signs, TV commercials, mailings and speeches filled the days up to the election. On election night, with 100% of the precincts reporting, the firefighters and ultimately the citizens of Lincoln were victorious. The issue of who would provide EMS to the community was finally put to rest.

Effective Jan. 1, 2001, Lincoln firefighters are providing EMS treatment and transport. Lincoln now has an EMS system in which first response and EMS transport are coordinated under the same providers, equipment, training, administration and logistics system. Although there were many bumps and bruises along with the way, the Lincoln firefighters and their administration are to be complimented for their efforts and persistence in raising the standard of EMS provided in their community.