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Union petitions EMS outsourcing after N.J. firefighter layoffs

It's a move public officials are increasingly willing to make, but city fire officials warn it can be dangerous

By Anjalee Kemlani
The Press of Atlantic City

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. – Pleasantville officials say they will safely replace the loss of emergency medical services resulting from laying off five firefighters for budgetary reasons by outsourcing their EMS or signing a shared-service agreement.

It's a move public officials are increasingly willing to make but city fire officials warn can be dangerous.

As a result of the announcement of five layoffs Wednesday, the firefighters union is circulating a petition in an attempt to reverse the city's decision.

"You can't put a price on the safety of the residents," said union Vice President Julio Sanchez. "And our lives are in danger."

But city officials say they are not concerned about a loss of EMT service. City Administrator Linda Peyton said residents will not notice the change.

The city is following other towns' lead.

Still, Sanchez cited a recent issue that he said serves as an example of why privatization or an outside service is a bad idea. He pointed to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Service's admission that it falsified reports on response times to Northfield when it was in a shared-service agreement with the city and Linwood in 2010 and 2011. The cities switched to using Shore Medical Center in 2012.

Pleasantville officials said the layoffs there will save the city $700,000 and help balance a $1 million budget shortfall, which is a result of cuts in state funding, mostly through the Urban Enterprise Zone. Gov. Chris Christie cut UEZ funding in July 2011 as part of a 3 percent decrease to the state's budget.

City Council President Judy Ward said that it is a terrible time to see someone lose their job, but that the budget situation needs to be addressed.

Ward's own son, Terence Ward, 34, was one of the five firefighters laid off. Terence Ward said that the department was already understaffed, having lost 10 firefighters in the last six years to retirement who have not been replaced.

"Every year since we have been hired (in 2008), we have been threatened about layoffs," he said. But after managing to stay with the department for at least five years, a sense of stability was felt. "Maybe there are concessions to be made to close the gap" instead of the layoffs, he said. "We are willing to help the city. We understand they are in a tough position."

AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Services now has contracts with Egg Harbor City, Mullica, Hammonton and Folsom to provide basic emergency medical services, hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said. Additionally, ARMC has a certificate of need from the state as the provider of paramedic services in Cape May and Atlantic counties.

In Egg Harbor City, the contract saves the city $21,000 annually -- money it no longer has to pay as a contribution to a volunteer squad, said Jodi Kahn, the city's chief financial officer.

Mullica Township initially had a volunteer squad, but all the members retired in 2008. After that, the township entered a shared-service agreement with Hammonton, but eventually went out to bid in 2010, said township clerk Kim Johnson.

In 2010, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center proposed a bid that would cost taxpayers nothing -- a savings of $15,000 to the township, Johnson said. The way AtlantiCare operates is by billing the individual and insurance companies.

"We have had no complaints," Johnson said about the quality of service. Jerry Barberio, business administrator in Hammonton, said the municipality had contracted with a private service prior to switching to AtlantiCare.

"We are happy with the service and the response times are great, it's a great benefit to the town," Barberio said.Other municipalities have mixed service agreements. An example is the shared service between Cape May Court House, Cape May Point and West Cape May.

The three municipalities have had an agreement for several years to use the ambulance service from Cape May Court House, according to city administrator Bruce MacLeod.

The fire department is similar to Pleasantville -- where the staff are trained as both firefighters and EMTs. The city provides a basic level of service to the three areas for an agreed shared cost, MacLeod said.

However, in the event the customer has medical insurance, the amount paid by the insurance provider is credited back to the municipality. As a result, it is not entirely the burden of the taxpayers, MacLeod said.

But the situation in Pleasantville is different.

"There are some people who are economically challenged and may be improperly medicated," Sanchez said. "And the level of care is different."

He said that Pleasantville is one of the few areas that deal with assault victims, stabbings and gunshot wounds on a more frequent basis.

"There are times we get to the location of a scene and the cops may not be there or the area may not be secure," Terence Ward said. "But we know people in the area who can help us by telling us what is happening or with crowd control. We are not intimidated by the moment or situation of what's going on."

Sanchez said the department understands the budget crunch, but the layoffs should be reversed.

Terence Ward said that it was refreshing to see the support of residents through the petition, and if any others are interested they should come to the council meeting on Nov. 18 to voice their concerns.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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