Next week, Pinellas County Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a resolution that will change the way firefighters and ambulances respond to emergency 911 calls throughout the county.
The vote is the third phase in Pinellas County's effort to streamline its 911 dispatch system.
"We have the Cadillac of systems in Pinellas County, and we can no longer afford it. We need to get costs under control," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is a Palm Harbor resident.
Under the proposed change, firefighters and paramedics, or "first responders," would no longer both be dispatched to minor 911 calls, such as those about a fall or a sick person. Ambulances would only be sent to these calls. The 911 dispatcher would make the decision about whether to send an ambulance or firefighters-paramedics by asking a series of questions. The change would reduce the number of first responder responses by 14,000 per year, according to the proposal.
Commissioner Latvala supports the change.
"Why haven't we done it sooner?" she said. "The number one complaint from citizens is, 'Why do all these first responders come to a fender bender?' " she added.
However, not everyone in Pinellas County approves of the change, including East Lake Fire Rescue Chief Tom Jamison and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Chief James Angle, who says firefighters have a quicker response time, which is important.
"This is not cost savings; this is a reduction in service to our citizens. Our top priority is safety; phase 3 of priority dispatch means that if Mrs. Smith who lives across the street from the fire station falls and calls 911 for help, "a not dangerous injury" would lay on the floor for up to 15 minutes before an ambulance arrives. The fire department would not be notified of her emergency," said Angle.
The proposal documents say that response time would be an average of 2 minutes and 44 second longer. If an ambulance does not arrive in 15 minutes, a first responder would be sent immediately.
The East Lake fire chief says he's determined to provide the same service to citizens, despite the change.
"East Lake is one of the only departments that has put Pinellas County on notice that we will continue to respond to those calls," Jamison told Patch.
Jamison says that he's not opposed to the idea of priority dispatch, he just disagrees with the resources the county is using to implement it. "First responders should be the first to respond."
Jamison also wishes the county would have waited to make its decision, because a study looking at EMS transport services is still underway.
East Lake and Palm Harbor fire districts are among the municipalities that passed resolutions against the dispatch changes. The cities of Safety Harbor, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, South Pasadena, Dunedin and Belleair Bluffs passed resolutions against phase 3, as did the Lealman and the Pinellas Suncoast Fire Districts, according to TBN Weekly.
Representatives from many Pinellas County fire departments presented their arguments against the change during a Dec. 6 workshop held by county commissioners.
Commissioners appear to have listened to their concerns, according to documents that accompany the Jan. 15 County Commission agenda:
"Staff was able to address the concerns raised during the Board Workshop on December 6, 2012 and through the various Resolutions received from Cities and Fire Districts. ALS First Responder Units will be notified, but not required to respond, to medical calls in the "Phase 3" category. Individual departments or units may elect to respond to individual calls."
Not all fire districts are opposed to the 911 dispatch change. Largo, St. Pete Beach and Seminole fire districts passed resolutions supporting it, according to TBN Weekly.
Pinellas County documents say that previous changes to the dispatching system have been safe and effective. Those changes include-
- April 2009: Consolidation of 911 dispatch into one location for an annual savings of $500,000.
- December 2012: First responder unit sent to specific types of calls which reduced ambulance responses by 8,000 or 5.6 percent annually.