N.Y. council kills fire-based ambulance service

Despite vocal opposition at the meeting, the body voted unanimously to contract with a private ambulance firm

By Thomas Prohaska
The Buffalo News

LOCKPORT, N.Y. — In the face of unanimous public opposition, at least so far as speakers at the meeting were concerned, the Common Council voted, 6-0, Wednesday to do away with the Fire Department's ambulance service.

The Council awarded a three-year contract to Twin City Ambulance, the same company that provides ambulance service in the Tonawandas, Amherst, Williamsville, Clarence, Grand Island and part of Wheatfield.

Twin City will not charge the city anything, unless the call is for a city worker injured on the job, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said.

She said that when Twin City takes over, as of 7 a.m. Sept. 15, the city will reduce minimum personnel requirement on each Fire Department shift from nine to six, because larger forces aren't needed if there are no ambulances. The city has two, which will be auctioned off.

Even though the mayor said that reduction in manpower use is expected to save about $400,000, more cuts are being threatened. Former Assistant Fire Chief Mark S. Devine said at the Council meeting that layoffs of five more firefighters are rumored. McCaffrey didn't deny it.

"We hope to avoid that," she said after the meeting, promising more details in a speech in two weeks.

Alderman Patrick W. Schrader, a Fire Board member, said that in order to avoid layoffs, the city needs five firefighters to retire.

Firefighter Kevin W. Pratt, president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association, said that he had a meeting with McCaffrey last Thursday. "She alluded to the fact that our department is going to be five people less," Pratt said.

The city has 37 firefighters plus the fire chief. It laid off seven firefighters at the start of the year, a number reduced by one because of a retirement at the time.

The city's financial crisis may be alleviated shortly by approval of $5.35 million worth of emergency bonding authority from Albany. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo still hasn't signed the bill, but McCaffrey said it was formally delivered to him Aug. 25. According to information she received from the Assembly, that started a 10-day clock. McCaffrey said the bill automatically becomes law after 10 days even if Cuomo doesn't actually sign it, as long as he doesn't formally veto it.

On Sept. 15, the Niagara County Sheriff's Office will take over dispatching duties for Lockport fire calls, which are now handled by the city police. Twin City also has its own dispatchers, Schrader said, who are in touch with the county.

Bryan A. Brauner, Twin City's CEO, said his company has 34 ambulances with two on order. He said Twin City is looking for a location in downtown Lockport to house ambulances. "It'll be in a parking lot if we can't find anyplace else," he said.

Brauner said there will be one ambulance with paramedic service in the city at all times, plus one with basic life-support equipment. A second paramedic ambulance will be assigned to Lockport during peak hours, which have been determined to be from 8 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m.

"The level of care will not change. What will change is the level of dispatching," Brauner told the Council.

Brauner said for most people, the cost of an ambulance ride won't change, even though Twin City's rates are considerably higher than the city charged.

Statistics show 75 percent of Lockport ambulance calls are for patients who have Medicare or Medicaid, and Brauner said Twin City simply takes whatever the government will pay and doesn't bill the patient for more.

Those with private insurance may see an impact, but it will depend on their individual policy deductibles, McCaffrey said.

Twin City uses two-man crews, President Terence P. Clark said. Its units are required to go to structure fires, water rescues and other Fire Department calls.

Twin City's units are constantly on the road and can be shifted in case more ambulances are needed. Brauner said Fire Department figures show that Lockport's busiest day in the last four years was 15 ambulance calls, and the most in an hour was three.

Council President Joseph C. Kibler said the city must bring Fire Department overtime under control. He read out payroll numbers, without using names, that showed six firemen have been paid $30,000 to $38,000 in overtime since Jan. 1.

Pratt said, "The out-of-control overtime is the result of the cuts they made on Jan. 3."

Speakers at the meeting complained that no facts were given to the public before the vote. McCaffrey said Twin City officials will be present to answer questions at a public meeting at 6 p.m. next Wednesday in City Hall. That date was switched from Tuesday because of a conflict with the city's tax foreclosure auction.


(c)2014 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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