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Council Must Ask: Is This The Best Way To Solve EMS Issue?

After rejecting a contract with the union representing Jamestown’s firefighters earlier this year over cost concerns, the Jamestown City Council is now poised to hire the four firefighters that only a few months ago they deemed too rich for the city’s blood.

On one hand, if there is a time to make such an investment — even if it is a short-term investment — it is now. The city’s fund balance is healthy, sales tax revenues are coming in higher than expected, federal stimulus funding is available to backstop the new spending through 2027 and there is consensus that something needs to be done to meet the growing volume of EMS calls. The federal funding and city’s relative financial stability create a situation in which the council can take a chance on public safety programs the city couldn’t afford in years past and which it may not be able to afford in the future.

So, consider the additional four firefighters a pilot program to see if the city can afford to handle more EMS calls and just how much revenue can be garnered from EMS response. There are two distinct schools of thought on that matter. One school of thought is the revenue will be high enough that the city won’t have to spend much to keep the program running. A second school of thought states staffing an EMS operation with professional firefighters rather than less expensive EMTs will drive program costs so high the city won’t be able to keep the second city ambulance in service. That school of thought also points out if it was possible to run a profitable EMS enterprise in Jamestown there would be more private sector competition to do just that.

In our opinion, the city has an EMS problem that creates problems for city residents who need help during an emergency, for firefighters who sometimes find themselves handling EMS calls when their expertise is needed at the scene of a fire and for volunteer fire departments that are spending their time responding to calls in Jamestown as part of the mutual aid system. If this is the time to try something, shouldn’t the city try to implement the lowest cost plan it can? And, as we know from the 2019 EMS study compiled by former Mayor Sam Teresi, the lowest cost option other than a private provider backstopped by city tax dollars is to hire civilian EMTs to handle EMS calls.

There is one thing worse than hiring firefighters in 2022 only to have to lay the off in 2027 if the city can’t afford to keep then, and that is getting city residents accusotmed to a higher level of service and then pulling the rug out from underneath them. If the city is bound and determined to hire staff to respond to EMS calls, then, in our opinion, the city should pursue the model that provides the most likelihood of long-term viability — and we’re not sure hiring four firefighters to man an ambulance is the best long-term path. That path may involve a hybrid of firefighters and EMTs to create a business model that makes some sense.

The council and Sundquist have come to an important agreement. In their view the city can afford to increase its EMS response capability. Now, it’s incumbent to find the most practical way to spend that money — not necessarily the easiest or most expedient.

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