Huntsville, Alabama Times
The figures would not seem credible except for the fact that they are easily consistent with figures across the nation:
Before the Huntsville Fire & Rescue Department began its first-responder emergency medical service last October, the department was responding to about 5,000 total calls a year.
This year, the number of calls is expected to reach 24,000. The difference? Emergency medical calls.
Bottom line: Whether it was a good idea or not, the fire department is now solidly in the business of emergency medical services.
Calls have soared
Last week, The Times editorial board, plus City Editor Shelly Haskins and City Hall reporter John Peck, met with Fire Chief Dusty Underwood and other top officers in the department. We talked for more than an hour about the emergency-responder service and other department issues, some related to the responder program, some unrelated.
We met because Times editorials have been skeptical about the program. Our latest editorial (April 1) expressed concern with the idea of the city hiring a billing company to bill homeowners’ insurance for residential calls, a question that has not been resolved.
But the issue points up something that’s beyond dispute. For the fire department to take on 19,000 more calls a year – and to answer every one of those calls with a firetruck even if there isn’t a fire – costs money. As the community grows, it will cost even more.
And that cost comes at a time when Underwood’s department needs to replace firetrucks, repair fire stations and build new ones.
Something’s gotta give.
A little background: When Underwood became fire chief last summer, he tried to implement the emergency-response program immediately. Mayor Loretta Spencer slowed him down, but the program finally became reality.
Since October, fire officials have been working out the kinks, especially with Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Inc. In some cases, the department is now referring certain calls entirely to HEMSI. In other cases, HEMSI doesn’t hit the road unless it’s called by the fire department.
But the fact remains: If someone calls 911 and reports gunshots and a man lying motionless in the street, three separate public agencies will respond – Huntsville police, Huntsville fire and HEMSI. Or, if criminal activity is not suspected, a firetruck and HEMSI will show up.
Every fire station has trained emergency technicians, but it’s not advisable to take people to the hospital on a firetruck, so HEMSI is essential.
So, is the day coming when the fire department and HEMSI are merged into a single emergency response program?
Underwood acknowledged that the department will have to buy some smaller vehicles if the money is available. A big firetruck can cost more than $600,000, and firetrucks are not supposed to be emergency medical vehicles.
So if the fire department and HEMSI later merge – or at least share more stations than at present – I hope they can avoid what Times’ editorials considered mistakes in how the department got into this citywide role:
Any major public policy decisions should involve the City Council and be open to public input. This one wasn’t.
If fire officials continue to provide this service, they must do it with vehicles designed for the job, not giant trucks made to fight fires.
Money needs should be addressed at the outset, not months after a program is up and running. Will residents be billed for their services? Say so up front.
I’m not suggesting the city shouldn’t do this. I’m saying that if it carries this approach to a logical conclusion – a single emergency service agency – it should do it right from the start. And does anybody not want to do it right?
John Ehinger’s e-mail: [email protected]