Wisc. FD may reduce minimum ambulance staff from 3 to 2 amid personnel shortage

The Racine Fire Department has instated a hiring freeze due to budget constraints and anticipates several retirements by the end of the year


Dee Hölzel
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

RACINE, Wisc. — The Racine Fire Department's reduction in personnel can be managed, but it will take a coordinated effort with dispatch.

This was the message from Fire Chief Steve Hansen, who was before the city council on Monday to discuss the 2021 proposed budget.

The Racine Fire Department is considering lowering minimum ambulance staffing in order to accommodate personnel shortages.
The Racine Fire Department is considering lowering minimum ambulance staffing in order to accommodate personnel shortages. (Photo/City of Racine, Wisconsin)

Since 2010, the city has reduced its budgeted personnel by 65 positions. Until now, public safety was excluded from those reductions.

However, facing tough budget constraints, the city proposed eliminating 12 positions from the Police Department and nine from the Fire Department.

Paraphrasing comments made by Police Chief Art Howell, Hansen said he understood the math of the 2021 budget.

"It's a challenge," he said. "It's going to cause us to rethink and develop new ways of dealing with emergency responses in the city of Racine."

There are currently seven open positions in the Fire Department due to the city's hiring freeze, which was enacted to stave off a more serious budget deficit.

Hansen said he anticipates several retirements at the end of the year, so his department will be able to eliminate nine positions without actually laying anyone off.

Reduced crews

Although discussions are ongoing, the plan is to reduce 3-person ambulance crews to 2-person ambulance crews.

Alderman Mary Land questioned whether the language of the collective bargaining agreement would even allow that change. City Attorney Scott Letteney affirmed the language requires two paramedics and a third will be assigned whenever possible at the discretion of the fire chief.

Hansen said that the plan is to work closely with dispatchers to ensure the right personnel are dispatched to every call for service.

He explained there are four different levels of care the Fire Department provides:

— BLS (Basic Life Support)

— ALS (Advanced Life Support) for traumas and such.

— ALS 1 (Advanced Life Support Critical Care) for heart attacks and strokes, etc.

— A fourth level for those who do not have a pulse/have ceased to breathe.

Hansen said different scenarios may get a different combination of companies responding. With the right information from dispatchers, the Fire Department will be able to ensure the right resources are rolling to those higher level of calls.

Getting the right resources rolling will take planning and cooperation between dispatch and the Fire Department. Those details will be worked out in the upcoming months.

Hansen also told the City Council all the stations will remain open and all the engine/truck companies will keep their current staffing levels into next year.

All personnel are cross-trained so that all firefighters are paramedics and vice versa.

Additional funding opportunities

The RFD is currently working to obtain what is known as assistance to firefighter grants for equipment. One grant submitted back in March for $941,000 is still pending.

There are also opportunities for RFD to improve revenues through EMS billing. Two years ago, the department began working with its crews in earnest to improve billing, Hansen said.

With an outside firm, the department gave staff additional training in report writing, for more concise and accurate reports, along with other tasks, so their billing agency, LifeQuest could better capture revenues through EMS billing.

The challenge, Hansen continued, is that 87% of the people they transport are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or have no insurance at all. The federal government does not fully reimburse hospitals or Fire Departments for EMS transports.

Hansen said he hoped in the future the federal government would revisit the issue because costs for that service go up every year.

In the meantime, the RFD remains in a good position for response during the pandemic, he said.

Hansen said the department has been in a good position since the start, with the right protective gear to protect the crews responding to emergency situations, and to protect members of the public who are being transported.

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(c)2020 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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