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May 2, 2011

Fire chief says privatization would hurt Wis. EMS

By Larry Sandler
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — Emergency medical service would drop below acceptable standards if private companies replaced the Milwaukee Fire Department, Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said Friday.

But Rohlfing said exploring consolidation and cooperation opportunities with suburban fire departments would be "an excellent idea." The chief was responding to Ald. Terry Witkowski's announcement Thursday of a study on overhauling the Fire Department.

Witkowski has asked the city's Legislative Reference Bureau to look into whether private ambulance companies could take over emergency medical service, whether private contractors could be hired to provide fire service and whether city and suburban fire departments could merge with each other, perhaps under Milwaukee County administration.

Rohlfing said he was "always open to looking at any kind of efficiencies," but remained a proponent of public emergency medical, fire and police service.

National standards call for trained emergency medical technicians to arrive with a defibrillator within five minutes of receiving a call for help, Rohlfing said.

"Without our apparatus responding, it's impossible to meet that standard," Rohlfing said. "It really is a standard of care that our citizens have come to expect." In Milwaukee, fire engines typically respond first, then call either city paramedics for advanced aid or private ambulances to take patients to hospitals.

Rohlfing said he saw private emergency medical service fall through in Rapid City, S.D., where he was previously fire chief.

In that city, a private ambulance company was providing paramedic service, but fire engines still showed up first for basic aid, he said.

Then the private company decided to pull out because the business wasn't profitable enough, Rohlfing said, and the city had to form its own paramedic unit in 2005.

Scottsdale, Ariz., had a similar experience with private firefighting service. Private fire protection is a much narrower market segment than private emergency medical service, Rohlfing said. But Witkowski said he was aware of at least one company, Rural/Metro Corp., of Scottsdale, which provides both fire protection and ambulance service to communities nationwide.

Rural/Metro handled fire protection in its hometown for more than 50 years before pulling out in 2005, forcing the Phoenix suburb to form its own fire department, according to a 2010 article in The Arizona Republic.

A Rural/Metro spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment. The publicly traded corporation is in the process of being acquired by the Warburg Pincus private equity firm.

Witkowski said any contract with private companies would have to provide adequate notice of cancellation. Wackenhut Services Inc., best known as a private security company, also provides fire protection and emergency medical services nationwide, a company representative said in an email to Witkowski.

The county has hired Wackenhut to provide security on county buses and to transport county inmates; the county also paid the firm to replace security guards at county buildings, and Wackenhut kept part of that work even after the privatization move was overturned.

Rohlfing was more positive about looking into joint operations with suburban departments, an idea also pushed by Mayor Tom Barrett.

The Milwaukee Fire Department serves West Milwaukee under a contract with that village, and the North Shore Fire Department serves seven suburbs. Other communities operate their own fire departments. The county has its own firefighting force for Mitchell International Airport but contracts with the Wauwatosa Fire Department to protect the County Grounds.

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