Fight continues as NY fire board looks to drop ambulance service
The firefighters union says any cost savings to the city will come at the expense of public safety
By Joe Olenick
The Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
LOCKPORT, N.Y. — Abolishing ambulance service would save money for the City of Lockport, officials say.
Lockport Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing city firefighters, claims the savings would be at the expense of public safety.
Talk about reducing ambulance service started last month when the Fire Board ordered manning and equipment reductions in Lockport Fire Department. Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite told the board the department had used up about $200,000 of its 2014-budgeted $500,000 overtime spending line already. Without some change in daily operations, he predicted, the department could incur $1 million in overtime charges by the end of the year.
State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III signed a temporary restraining order last week that reversed a Fire Board directive reducing the minimum staffing level to seven firefighters per shift, reducing ambulance staffing to two paramedics and taking one of two city ambulances out of service. The reductions took effect May 1 and lasted four days, until the city was served with Boniello's order.
The city and Lockport Professional Firefighters Association will return to court May 28 for a hearing on the restraining order. Sometime after that date, the Fire Board and Common Council will get together to decide on the future of the ambulance service.
At a Council work session last week, discussion about doing away with the ambulance service altogether was open. Aldermen seemed willing to have that conversation, as did Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey.
"I think that will be the discussion next week," McCaffrey said. "Either we should be all in or not."
There wasn't a city ambulance service until the 1970s, when the fire department took over the privately operated Frontier Ambulance company. Now, Lockport is one of the few municipalities in New York state that runs its own service.
In an email, Peter A. Baynes, the executive director for the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officers, said while the organization does not keep data on which municipalities provide ambulance services, a few cities in the state are known to. They include Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs and New York City through its fire department.
Locally, other than Lockport, only the Village of Medina provides ambulance services. But the village is discussing its own dissolution, which puts such a service at risk of being cut. Batavia cut its ambulance service in 2009; Lockport Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano said he plans to speak with that city's attorney to find out why Batavia officials made that decision.
Considering the financial challenges the city is facing, McCaffrey said Friday, administration needs to look at every expense, and it does not appear to her that Lockport can afford its ambulance service. The total cost to run it -- factoring in firefighters' wages, paramedic stipends and fringe benefits, equipment and medical supplies -- is roughly $1.2 million a year, while service billings bring in about $600,000 a year.
"What's compelling to me, no other municipality (in Niagara or Erie counties) offers an ambulance service," McCaffrey said. "And we're the only one (that offers ambulance service) that's listed as being in fiscal stress."
At LFD, overtime is incurred when off-duty firefighters are called in to cover holes in the staffing of a 10- or 14-hour shift. Per a clause in LPFA's collective bargaining agreement with the city, at least nine firefighters will be working per shift. The 38-man firefighting force is split up into four platoons that cover the shifts and up to three men per platoon can take time off. At the current overall staffing level, mathematically, it's almost impossible to avoid incurring multiple overtime call-ins on a daily basis.
The overtime is costing the city an extra $67.03 per hour, per firefighter, McCaffrey said.
Providing an ambulance service is not an item in LPFA's contract or LFD's mission statement, McCaffrey and Ottaviano confirmed. In fact, the city believes the minimum manning agreement is tied to the level of service being provided by LFD. The nine-man minimum was established in connection with services provided by the department at the time of the agreement, late 2009. If some services are dropped, the minimum staffing requirement should be lower, the thinking goes.
Eliminating city ambulance service would put residents at risk, LPFA president Kevin Pratt suggested, pointing to a large senior citizen population.
LFD's ambulance service handled about 3,600 calls in 2013. About 85 percent were for emergency medical services, Pratt said.
"It'd be a huge cut in service," Pratt said of the notion of the city getting out of the ambulance business. "I don't know if they have a plan on how to protect the citizens of the city."
LFD has two ambulances, Medic 5 and Medic 6. Medic 6, the one that the Fire Board ordered de-certified, handled about 11 percent or just under 400 ambulance calls last year. Half of those were for simple transports to area hospitals.
Nonetheless, Pratt said, for the four days LFD was limited to using a single ambulance, the effects were seen right away. He said Medic 5 was out on a call when a resident called about a cut finger. Firefighters responded in a truck and provided basic treatment while an ambulance was summoned through mutual aid. The resident declined to wait for the ambulance to arrive and went to Eastern Niagara Hospital on his own, according to Pratt.
It's the same story that retired firefighter Mark Devine told the Common Council last week. Fire engines have basic first aid equipment, but they can't handle a serious medical emergency, he said.
"What if it had been a heart attack? It could've been a lot worse. That's what the citizens are getting," Devine said.
The city has had conversations with ambulance companies and Niagara County Fire Coordinator Jonathan F. Schultz about responding to calls in the city. Pratt speculated that cutting ambulance service altogether may violate the Niagara County mutual aid agreement, which allows volunteer fire companies to respond to calls in the city if needed, because Lockport wouldn't be able to reciprocate.
In its lawsuit seeking to upend the Fire Board-ordered manning and equipment reductions, LPFA asserted the cuts both violate its agreement with the city and risk public safety.
To illustrate, the union cited the Sept. 20, 2012, death of West Avenue resident Jeanette A. Lombardi, who suffered anaphylactic shock at home after a medical procedure. When 911 was called to her home, both of LFD's ambulances were listed as being in use, one on an out-of-town transport and the other in a training exercise. City police-fire dispatch contacted the Niagara County Sheriff's Office to get mutual aid, meaning service from the closest non-city company. Wrights Corners Volunteer Fire Co. responded 13 minutes after the 911 call was received.
Without using Mrs. Lombardi's name in the suit, LPFA asserted Lockport Fire Department was unable to provide a timely medical response on the day of her death and that "she may have been saved, had the proper equipment been available."
Deputy Corporation Counsel David Blackley said LPFA's version of that story is incorrect.
There is some question whether one of the city ambulances was in fact available, as sources at the time told the US&J that the training exercise was in fact over when the 911 call came in and a second departmental standard operating procedure, concerning how to handle 911 calls when ambulances are occupied, also was violated. The Fire Board looked into the alleged violations and never recommended any discipline.
The city presently is defending itself against a lawsuit by Beth A. Arajs, the executor of Jeanette A. Lombardi's estate, charging procedural lapses by Lockport Fire Department contributed to her mother's death. Arajs is 1st Ward Alderman John Lombardi III's sister.
(c)2014 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.)
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