Firefighters Are Too Valuable To Send For Ambulance Calls

Jamestown firefighters have every right to be upset if they indeed are unable to respond to structure fires because they are responding to ambulance calls.

On Monday, the firefighters’ union blasted Mayor Sam Teresi for placing the public at risk by not hiring more firefighters and for rotating fire station closures. We note that adding firefighters to comply with the National Fire Protection Association statistics union officials cited on Monday comes with a price tag of $708,268, a price tag that makes meeting the NFPA standard a non-starter for a city that can’t raise the taxes necessary to buy a cheap toaster. Union officials then note that the department is spending more and more of its time responding to ambulance calls, which leaves the public unprotected from emergencies. That is a claim that merits some discussion.

We note, though, that the firefighters’ blame on that front is misguided. City firefighters are responding to EMS calls because private ambulance companies are declaring themselves out of service more and more often while low reimbursement rates make it difficult for competition to emerge in the marketplace. The city has no control over the operations of private business and cannot make the federal government increase reimbursement rates on ambulance calls to the point necessary for either existing private ambulance companies to be staffed appropriately and make money or for potential competition to enter the marketplace. The city is responsible for EMS response for its citizens, however.

It was with this backdrop that we notice Teresi’s inclusion of two ambulances in his Smart Cities Capital Plan. The mayor was clear on Monday, and again in this morning’s edition of The Post-Journal, that the city is readying itself to begin answering EMS calls in the city, though city officials are still putting the finishing touches on their plan. The best thing for city taxpayers would be for a solution to appear that doesn’t involve a city-owned and operated ambulance service at all. We hope, as part of their planning, city officials have left no stone unturned in looking for privately-owned alternatives.

If there are no such options, we see two in-house solutions to this mess: either hire more firefighters to staff both the ambulances and firefighting equipment or create a non-profit, city-run ambulance corps to respond to emergency medical calls. The pay scales for the Chautauqua County fly car system, then, are instructive. Currently, Chautauqua County is paying paramedics between $16.88 to $21.64 an hour, or between $35,110 and $45,011 a year. Senior paramedics earn between $18.66 to $23.98 an hour, or $38,813 to $49,878 per year. According to the city’s 2019 budget, only 10 of the city’s 48 line firefighters (not including battalion chiefs or the deputy fire chief) are scheduled to earn less than $45,718 in 2019. Most city firefighters earn between $64,499 and $72,266, far more than the county is paying for similar work.

The firefighters’ union is right — they shouldn’t be responding to EMS calls at the expense of their duties as firefighters. While The Post-Journal is not privy to the information being compiled by city officials, the comparison with county employees leads us to conclude city firefighters are simply too valuable to taxpayers to use on ambulance calls.