Danville panel urged to look into taking over EMS

Danville panel urged to look into taking over EMS

Other departments say it can be good source of revenue

DANVILLE — Rather than closing fire stations and reducing personnel to ensure the financial future of the Danville fire department, firefighters want the city to consider taking over emergency medical services that are currently provided by private company Medix Ambulance.

Other fire departments in Illinois and Indiana have expanded into EMS, which provides a new source of revenue that helps supplement fire-protection services, according to proponents.

"Fire and EMS go hand in hand," said Glen Hall, deputy chief of the Terre Haute, Ind., fire department, which expanded into EMS in 2000 with one ambulance. Now, that city's fire department has three ambulances, each manned by two parademics who are also firefighters. In Illinois, the fire departments in Bloomington and Charleston have also expaned into EMS.

Hall shared information about his department Monday night with a committee of Danville citizens and firefighters. The panel was created by city officials to study how the fire department can sustain itself in the future in light of personnel costs that are outpacing the city's flat to minimal growth in revenue.

In addition to increased salaries, the city's annual fire-pension expenses have increased by more than $1 million since 2000. Police-pension costs have increased by about $1 million in that same time, so those two expenses are taking a bigger chunk of property-tax revenue each year in a city where property values as a whole have been declining since 2008.

In 2000, 32 percent of the city's property-tax revenue — about $4.7 million — paid for fire and police pensions. Last year, it took about 62 percent — $5.9 million.

Pension benefits are determined by the state legislature. So, city officials have said, the only way to reduce pension costs is by reducing the number of firefighters, which they have done in the past, cutting in 2009 the total number of positions from 59 to the current 51.

But city officials contend that pension costs will continue to escalate, taking a bigger chunk of revenues each year, eventually breaking the city financially if some fundamental changes are not made.

Committee Chairman Jan Ostiguy, a local medical professional, and other committee members support closing at least one fire station and reducing personnel. The committee has discussed in the last several weeks many ways of reducing full-time positions but still providing fire protection, including using volunteer fire fighters or paid on-call firefighters, which some cities in Illinois currently do.

But firefighers continue to push the committee to consider expanding into EMS as other cities have done.

Although they are not trained as paramedics, Danville firefighters already respond to most emergency medical calls in the city along with Medix Ambulance personnel and may deliver services until Medix arrive or assist the private company.

Hall said the Terre Haute fire department runs about 8,000 calls a year, and about 5,700 of those are medical calls. He said the fire department handles only 911 calls, and if all of their ambulances are busy, calls roll over to the two private ambulance providers, which also handle patient transfer calls.

Hall said after expenses, the EMS service brings in a little more than $1 million to the fire department — money that covers about 10 salaries and buys equipment for the fire department.

Mike Kimmerling, Bloomington fire chief, said his department expanded into EMS about 10 years ago out of necessity when the hospitals dropped the service. He said for a department that doesn't create any revenue, EMS is a way to offset part of the personnel costs. He said most likely, the fire department is going to those calls anyway.

"So I'm leveraging those resources I use for EMS to cover fire protection," said Kimmerling, who added that the fire department has a $19 million budget and bills for about $6 million in emergency medical services it provides each year. With a collection rate of about 50 percent, the department recoups about $3 million of that, he said.

But Ostiguy and other committee members argue that there would be start-up costs for the fire department to go that route and additional personnel would be needed, which would add to the city's pension burden.

Tom Pruitt, assistant fire chief in Danville, argued in favor of expanding into EMS, and urged the committee not to make any cuts to stations or personnel and recommend that the city hire a professional to do a feasibility study on the department taking over EMS.

Ostiguy asked the committee members to delay voting on any formal recommendations until its next meeting on Aug. 25.