Pa. city’s new fire-based EMS begins operations this week
The newly formed EMS division of Meadville Central Fire Department will take over as the city’s designated primary EMS provider Wednesday morning
By Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
MEADVILLE, Pa. — Starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday, a significant change is coming to the city of Meadville and if all goes well the average resident won’t hear much about it.
“We hope this is not really all that newsworthy of an issue,” Greg Beveridge, director of Crawford County Department of Public Safety, said on Friday as the big day approached. “As long as things work as everybody hopes they do, then we’re all going to realize this was not much of a newsworthy story other than the significance of them starting.”
The newly formed emergency medical services (EMS) division of Meadville Central Fire Department, the organization doing the “starting,” will take over as the city’s designated primary EMS provider Wednesday morning. An ordinance passed by Meadville City Council last month changed the designation from long-time primary provider Meadville Area Ambulance Service (MAAS) to the fire department. MAAS will continue as the primary provider for approximately 20 municipalities around the city.
For residents and for Crawford County 911, which takes emergency calls and dispatches the appropriate responders, the change should be seamless.
“It’s not a huge change for us,” Beveridge said. “I hope it’s just business as usual.”
Residents, whether in the city or elsewhere, will continue to call 911 in the same way. For those in the city, Meadville Central will be the default provider, but Beveridge noted that “if anybody requests Meadville Area Ambulance Service for dispatch, we will honor that request.”
At Meadville Central Fire Department, the transition is expected to be seamless as well, according to Firefighter Tyler Cochran. Like all of the department’s firefighters, Cochran is qualified as an EMT. He is also one of two firefighters taking classes to qualify as a paramedic as well. Currently, seven of 16 firefighting staff members are certified as paramedics.
Firefighters already respond to medical emergencies in the city, though the department does not transport patients on its own, Cochran pointed out. However, in 2021 City Council approved an agreement with MAAS that allowed firefighters to drive the company’s ambulances to the hospital while MAAS paramedics attended to the patient. The agreement was a response to staffing shortages affecting EMS organizations across the state, city officials said at the time.
But while the transition may go largely unnoticed by the general public, that makes it no less significant.
“It’s exciting, I wouldn’t say it’s nerve wracking,” Cochran said Friday inside the apparatus bay in the Park Avenue fire station.
Nearby, EMS Coordinator Evan Kardosh was showing off what will soon be the “new office” for himself and the department’s four new paramedics — the back of one of the two used ambulances purchased by the city.
“It definitely gives it a little bit of a different aspect having a transport service but we’re running the calls already anyways in QRS fashion, Cochran said, referring to the quick response level of service that the department currently provides to patients before an ambulance arrives. “It’s just having that higher skill set to be able to do more for the people that you’re going to help.”
More skills are necessary, but the new arrangement almost certainly means more work for firefighters — additional work that comes as firefighters prepare to negotiate a new labor agreement with the city.
Last year, the city’s police officers were successful in negotiating a return from defined contribution retirement benefits to a traditional pension plan in the latest agreement between the city and the union that represents city police. The firefighters’ union resisted the change to defined contribution retirement benefits in the last decade, only making the change after a protracted and contentious mediation process decided in the city’s favor.
City Manager Maryann Menanno said that negotiations have not yet begun, so it’s not clear if the firefighters’ union will seek a return to traditional pension benefits, which almost certainly mean an increase to the city budget.
“A pension could be an ask,” Menanno said Friday in an email to the Tribune, “but we’ve already experienced one other union going through a contract negotiation and NOT asking for the return of a pension.”
After the police contract, the city negotiated another labor agreement with its non-uniformed union employees that maintained the 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement benefits.
Menanno said that it also should not be assumed that the four new paramedics will necessarily become part of the firefighters’ union.
“There are also legal questions surrounding Act 111 that would need to be flushed out prior to consideration of paramedics joining the fire union,” Menanno said. Act 11 is the state law that spells out the binding arbitration process between municipalities and the unions representing police and firefighters.
There were more important concerns to attend to in the immediate future as Cochran and Kardosh spoke in the fire station Friday.
“Getting the operation up and going and being able to provide that service is more important than worrying about how many people we have in the union — to me anyways,” said Cochran, who succeeded Kardosh as president of Local 515 of the International Fire Fighters Association when Kardosh was named the city’s EMS coordinator. “We can work on that later.”
Kardosh, meanwhile, had unloaded a stretcher bearing a heart monitor and red bags filled with other life saving gear from the back of vehicle 16-6, expected to be the department’s secondary ambulance.
“We have the staff, so we’re ready to take this out,” Kardosh said. “I’m sure there will be days it’s just as busy as the other one.”
Beginning Wednesday, a fire department ambulance — driven by a firefighter-EMT with a paramedic as passenger — will respond to medical calls. With the department’s minimum staffing level of three firefighters, at least two firefighters will remain available for other calls though Kardosh said part-time staffing is used to bring that number to three as much as possible.
When a fire call comes in, both the firefighters and the ambulance will be dispatched. If another call comes in when all of the on-duty are responding to a fire, the same thing that happens now will happen, according to Kardosh.
“As soon as we’re hit with any sort of fire,” he said, “we trip for off-duty (personnel) to respond back to the station and backfill as well as have great arrangements with our mutual aid to fill into that. As we call our off-duty in, they become more available to take the ambulance, assist on the other ambulance, and that’s the same thing we’ve done for years.”
As for mutual aid, Kardosh said the city’s ambulances will respond to calls outside the city as necessary when other agencies are unable to respond, and when city ambulances are busy other agencies will respond to calls in the city.
“We will always put patient care first and make sure that we continue to have that good working relationship for the benefit of the patient,” Kardosh said. “Just like any other fire department or EMS agency, we all rely on each other at the end of the day to make sure the job gets done.”
Beveridge expected the change-over to go smoothly.
“There are always those what ifs and unknowns that I don’t know if anybody can really prepare for,” he said. “We hope they remain minimal and easily overcome-able whenever they arise, but we think they’re going to do OK.”
The uncertainty surrounding one potential “what if” has already been solidified, Kardosh made clear as he loaded equipment back onto the truck with “City of Meadville Fire Dept.” freshly lettered on its side. When the first EMS call comes in after 8 a.m. Wednesday, Kardosh plans to be the paramedic onboard.
“I’ll be honest on that one,” Kardosh said, smiling. “I’m calling dibs.”
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