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January 19, 2012

Fire department becomes NY city's primary ambulance service

By Lee Coleman
The Daily Gazette

ALBANY, N.Y. — The City Council has voted in favor of the city Fire Department becoming the city's primary ambulance service, replacing a non-profit service that is running out of money.

The decision came late Tuesday night after a five-hour City Council meeting that featured a two-hour workshop, during which members of the public spoke for and against allowing the Fire Department to get into the ambulance business.

Mayor Scott Johnson cast the only vote against the measure, which will have the city Fire Department take over ambulance duties from Saratoga Emergency Medical Services.

"I can't support this, it's premature," Johnson said prior to the 11:20 p.m. vote. He said there are too many unanswered questions.

The mayor said he wanted to review the full, 50-page copy of an outside study done in 2007 that said an additional 10 firefighters would have to be hired if the Fire Department started making ambulance runs. He has only seen bits of it.

SEMS, a non-profit organization that has provided ambulance service to the city for several decades, is expected to cease operations later this month or early next month because of financial problems.

The council action directs the mayor to write a letter to the state Department of Health seeking a certificate authorizing the department to provide advance life support ambulance service to the city.

Fire Chief Robert Williams said financial projections indicate that the Fire Department would see new revenue -- somewhere between $300,000 and $700,000 -- if it provides ambulance transport.

The 55-member department currently has 45 paramedics or emergency medical technicians on staff and provides advanced life support services and other emergency medical services when it answers calls. The only thing firefighters can't currently provide is transport to the hospital, the one element that is reimbursed by insurance companies.

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who strongly supports the department in its wish to become primary ambulance provider, said the city's temporary certificate of need would be good for only two years. He said if the projected financial benefits don't become a reality in that time, the city can end the program.

Williams' proposal is to add one additional firefighter and place into service a 2005 ambulance the department already has. A private or non-profit ambulance service would be hired to respond when additional ambulances are needed.

Accounts Commissioner John Franck questioned the revenue projections and other issues. But he was convinced to vote in favor of the measure because of a "sunset clause" that says the City Council will evaluate the program in 18 months and decide whether to continue it.

Copyright 2012 The Daily Gazette Co.

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