NY FD opposes proposal to no longer send FFs on EMS calls

The Watertown City Council may vote to permanently remove the fire department's rescue truck and EMS operations


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The city Fire Department's rescue truck has been dispatched to more than 2,600 EMS calls so far this year.

But the City Council on Monday might decide to take the rescue truck off the road permanently and put a stop to responses to all medical calls by firefighters.

The Watertown City Council may vote to no longer send firefighters to medical calls. Fire Chief Matthew Timerman and the city's firefighters union oppose the proposal.
The Watertown City Council may vote to no longer send firefighters to medical calls. Fire Chief Matthew Timerman and the city's firefighters union oppose the proposal. (Photo/Watertown Firefighters Benevolent)

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith is introducing a resolution at Monday night's council meeting to end the rescue truck calls.

For years, he has said that there's no need for the rescue truck to go out on EMS calls because Guilfoyle Ambulance Services already responds to them and it duplicates services.

According to the resolution, Fire Chief Matthew Timerman would have until March 1 to come up with a plan to eliminate the rescue truck and EMS service.

Bruce G. Wright, president and chief executive officer of Guilfoyle Ambulance, said his company will be impacted by the city's decision to end EMS calls, adding that the community has "a good emergency response system" that it can rely on.

He's asking the city to put the brakes on the decision until he is able to talk to them about its ramifications.

"Guilfoyle feels that public safety would be taking steps backwards if the council were to stop the Fire Department from responding to medical calls," he said in his statement. " The Fire Department has highly-trained, willing and able men on-duty and ready to respond with our EMTs and paramedics. Having to request a Fire Department response would place a extra task on our already busy dispatcher and undue liability on our company that we feel is unnecessary."

The mayor said he's bringing up the issue now because of a recent decision by the state Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department, Rochester.

As a result of the court decision, the city has to either promote four captains who are assigned to the rescue truck or stop using the rescue truck. The City Council also will have to decide to replace the 15-year-old rescue truck at a cost of $250,000, the mayor said.

It's not clear if council members will vote on it on Monday night. Councilman Jesse C.P. Roshia said Friday he hasn't decided what he plans to do. Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson hopes that the EMS service will continue but doesn't know if there's enough support on council to keep it.

He and Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero say they have a lot of questions about the proposal, requesting that a decision be held off until after the holidays.

"It would not be right to make a decision on this during a pandemic," she said.

She wants to discuss the issue at a work session with Chief Timerman, Mr. Wright and Jefferson County officials.

Dispatchers automatically send out the rescue truck to all kinds of medical calls, from serious motor vehicle accidents and other catastrophic emergencies to non-serious medical illnesses.

In the past three years, the Fire Department has been dispatched to 7,878 EMS calls out of all of the 12,222 incidents to which the department has responded. In 2018, the number of dispatches was 2,625. Last year, the number was 2,634 and the department has gone out on 2,619 EMS calls so far this year.

Councilman Roshia doesn't think that firefighters need to go out on all of those calls. Many were probably unnecessary, he said.

There must be a way to respond to calls that are only needed, he said.

"It's all or nothing," he said. "I think we can find a number that would be appropriate. There must be a way to find a compromise."

He had hoped that it could have been worked out through a change in protocol in how Jefferson County 911 dispatchers handled medical calls for the city's Fire Department.

But the county opposed that plan because it meant adding dispatch staff and it cost more money. Councilman Roshia thought it was "more appropriate" to cut down on EMS calls that way, but it wasn't implemented.

Councilwoman Ruggiero said she knows of incidents in which Guilfoyle could not get to a call quickly because its ambulances were busy out of the city on calls or transporting a patient out of the area.

In one recent instance, she said, a city man with a health condition fell and hit his head, causing a large gash. Guilfoyle was unavailable, so after about 25 minutes, emergency personnel from the town of Watertown finally had to respond, she said.

Chief Timerman said the rescue truck gets to calls first about 90 percent of the time. The average response time — from the time of the call to the patient — is about eight minutes, according to Mr. Wright.

It costs about $20,000 in medical supplies, fuel and maintenance costs a year keep the rescue truck on the road.

"That's about $1 per person per year," Chief Timerman said.

When the department first started using it back in the 1980s, the rescue truck was used on a limited basis, going out to such incidents as river rescues before it started responding to medical calls, City Manager Kenneth A. Mix said.

Almost all professional fire departments in the state provide some type of EMS to their communities.

Chief Timerman has learned that three career fire departments in the Yonkers area are the only departments in the state that do not have EMS services. They are located in affluent communities that have extensive ambulance providers, he said.

While the mayor says that Guilfoyle can ask for the city to respond in the cases of a serious accident or tragedy, Paul Barter, director of the Jefferson County EMS, said the city would lose its state certification to go out on any EMS call if it ends the calls.

"We can carry their bags, but nothing to help a patient. Period," said firefighters' union President Daniel Daugherty.

The city has a certificate through the state's Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Trauma to provide basic life support skills — such as conducting CPR, advanced oxygen and using a defibrillator — on their calls for EMTs, while Guilfoyle provides advanced medical skills that paramedics can perform.

The Fire Department cannot transport patients, only Guilfoyle can. Guilfoyle has nine ambulances, with four on the road at any given time. A paramedic is on duty 24/7.

Out of the 69-member staff, all but a handful of the city firefighters are EMTs, the chief said. The city also is reimbursed $300 for each firefighter who completes EMT training.

If the Bureau of EMS pulls the Fire Department's certificate, the state would no longer reimburse the $300 to the city, Chief Timerman said.

The way that the training is provided to firefighters also would change.

Instead of getting training while doing their job, firefighters would have to attend a class, which the city would have to pay for, Mr. Daugherty said. The city must still provide that training, according to the union contract.

As for having to purchase a new rescue truck, Chief Timerman called it "a false narrative," stressing that neither he nor anyone else intends to recommend buying a new rescue truck next year.

The vehicle — purchased in 2005 and having clocked 12,733 hours of usage and 84,977 miles driven on city streets — has been in the capital budget for several years. The purchase keeps getting pushed back, the chief said.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson suggested that a smaller vehicle could be used to replace the rescue truck at a fraction of the cost of buying a new one.

Chief Timerman thinks that an existing Ford F-150 pickup truck used to haul a trailer can easily be converted into a rescue truck. It can carry about 95 percent of equipment that the current truck transports.

On Friday, the firefighters union, Watertown Professional Firefighters' Association, Local 191, released a statement outlining its continued opposition to eliminating the truck and EMS service. They are also calling for a delay on the vote.

Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo did not return a reporter's phone calls for comment.

The council meets at 7 p.m. in the third-floor council chambers in City Hall, 245 Washington St.

Various Types of EMS Calls in 2019

  • 26 Rescue EMS incident
  • 17 Rescue EMS other
  • 211 medical assistance
  • 4 burns
  • 8 stabbings
  • 170 unknown medical
  • 32 allergic
  • 82 bleeding
  • 39 CVA
  • 380 difficult breathing
  • 48 ETOH
  • 23 full arrest
  • 64 general illness
  • 64 cardiac arrest
  • 107 diabetic
  • 147 chest pain
  • 111 syncopy
  • 469 person fell
  • 117 overdose
  • 22 pregnancy
  • 37 altered mental
  • 112 assist
  • 133 seizures
  • 64 trauma
  • 24 dead on arrival
  • 5 unfounded
  • 80 motor vehicle accidents with injuries
  • 15 choking
  • 10 suicidal
  • 10 EMS service other
  • 5 non-motor vehicle accidents injuries
  • 23 motor vehicle accidents /pedestrian
  • 23 rescue or standby

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(c)2020 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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