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January 26, 2011

Questions surround accuracy of Fla. EMS report

By Anne Lindberg
St. Petersburg Times

PINELLAS, Fla. — The county agreed a year ago to pay a consultant $130,000 to study its emergency medical services system, but the preliminary report is riddled with basic fact errors and at least one city official says it is "stupid" and "crazy."

Other fire and EMS officials say the sloppy work raises questions about the validity of the recommendations. Those errors include misstating the number of fire districts in the county, grossly understating some firefighter salaries and using outdated financial information.

"We recognize there are inaccuracies. I think it calls into question the whole report," said Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis, who is head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association. The association, he said, has formed a committee to study the 86-page report. Beyond that, he said, the association has no comment.

"We just believe there's too many inaccuracies to give a report right now," Lewis said. "It would really be too early."

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala and Mic Gunderson of Integral Performance Systems, who did the study, agreed there are factual and numerical errors. But they said errors are expected in preliminary reports and are not substantial enough to affect either the theory behind the recommendations or the projected costs.

"It doesn't change the aggregate numbers," Gunderson said.

Gunderson said any mistakes will be cleared up when the final report is issued, likely in May. At a County Commission meeting on Tuesday, he handed out two pages of corrections.

The county hired Gunderson in December 2009 to study the EMS system, which has become expensive. It is funded by collecting tax money countywide and distributing it among the county's 18 fire districts.

Gunderson, who once worked as a paramedic for the Palm Harbor Fire Department and in the Pinellas EMS system for the medical director, was scheduled to begin the study last January and deliver a report in July. When he missed that deadline, it was extended to September, but that also went by with no report. Mid-November became the target date, but that, too, went by with no report. It was finally delivered Thursday.

Gunderson recommends that the basic structure of the EMS system remain the same, but that the funding approach be changed. His idea is to fund only one paramedic on an engine. Under the current system, the county funds two on many rescue trucks, the boxy vehicles that look like ambulances. It's a change that Gunderson says could save countywide taxpayers up to $15.8 million a year, but critics say the proposal would merely shift the tax burden for EMS from county taxpayers to local.

And the report has basic errors and internal contradictions. Among them:

* The report says Pinellas County has 19 fire districts. The county has had 18 since August 2009 when Belle­air Bluffs disbanded its district and contracted with Largo to provide fire and EMS service.

But a chart elsewhere in the report lists the 18 districts.

* The report uses financial data from different years. In one place, it uses figures from the "projected" 2009-10 budget and in another figures from the current fiscal year.

Gunderson said he used the most current information the county gave him.

* The report says Treasure Island pays its firefighters an average salary of $21,680 a year. But a chart below the statement shows Treasure Island with an average paramedic salary of a bit more than $60,000 a year.

The larger figure is more in line with the facts, Treasure Island fire Chief Charlie Fant said.

"Our pay is up there, comparable with departments of our size," Fant said. "I don't know where ($21,000) came from."

* A chart in the report says South Pasadena runs 515 EMS calls a year.

That's untrue, South Pasadena city attorney and spokeswoman Linda Hallas said. The rescue that's county-funded runs about 2,086 EMS calls a year, and the department runs almost 3,000, she said.

"That chart is indicative of the entire report as far as its accuracy," Hallas said. "To me, reading the report, the conclusion was that they want to leave the system exactly as it is, they just don't want to pay for it. Some of the numbers are really crazy."

Hallas said she thought the county would get something more creative and out of the box for $130,000. Instead, the county is saying, "Pay it in your city taxes or pay it in your countywide taxes. It's ridiculous," she said.

"It was disappointing to say the least to get that report. I really thought for that cost we would see solutions that nobody ever thought of," she said. "Who cares what the mistakes are, the conclusion is so stupid in the end."

Fant disagreed. The chief said he wasn't bowled over by the report, which he found to be "repetitive," but the issues remain despite the errors.

"To me, that (mistake in Treasure Island salaries) in and of itself does not really affect the recommendation they're aiming for," Fant said. "The goal is to equalize funding and establish some kind of median."

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