Pinellas fire response changes draw fire

A proposal would end fire response to some calls

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - Whenever a 9-1-1 call comes into the Pinellas County dispatch center, a fire truck and an ambulance are sent out to the address, even if the caller only needs a ride to the hospital. 

It's a system that has many residents asking why both a fire crew and an ambulance would be needed, especially if the call has nothing to do with fire service.

"Why bring the fire truck as well?" asked Nicole Tapscott, a Palm Harbor resident.  "Why spend the money on gas?  God forbid if it wasn't that important, now that fire truck is somewhere it really doesn't need to be," she said.

That's part of the premise by the Pinellas County Commission, which agreed late last year to move forward on the final phase of a streamlining of its emergency dispatch operations.  It will vote this month whether to change what determines a fire emergency.

Currently, if a patient calls with something as minor as a headache, a fire truck is dispatched out with an ambulance.  The new rules would require a more serious condition before fire crews are sent out.

"Our fire district, and a number of other providers in the county, do not believe this is a good idea," said James Angle, Palm Harbor's Fire Chief.  "This is not the right approach."

Angle said there are no cost savings by keeping firefighters at the station, because they get paid whether there's an emergency call or not.  He also believes the public could be at risk if a minor complaint is later revealed to be a serious medical problem.

"A fall is maybe just a fall.  Or it maybe was the person just got dizzy and fell, which could be a cardiac event," Angle said.  "You're really relying on the untrained public to determine the response to a call," he said.

Opponents contend that having a firefighters respond to routine 9-1-1 calls is beneficial because they generally arrive faster than ambulances.  The average response time in Palm Harbor is around four minutes.  Under the proposal, ambulances wouldn't have to respond for 15 minutes.

That's too long for a major medical issue, Angle said.

"Some will require additional treatment, rapid treatment, pain management," he said.  "Whatever the case may be, we still want to get to our citizens in the four-and-a-half minutes."

Communities like St. Pete Beach, Seminole, and Largo have approved resolutions in support of the reforms.  But others, like St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor, Pinellas Park, and Dunedin said they oppose implementation of the plan.

Angle and others hope there will be enough opposition to prevent the county commission from approving the changes.

"Coming out of the gate, we didn't feel it was good for our community," Angle said.

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