LOCKPORT – After 40 years of ambulance service provided by the city Fire Department, the cash-strapped City of Lockport will do away with that service around Sept. 1.
The Fire Board voted, 4-1, Tuesday to park the two ambulances for good and recommended to the Common Council that it seek proposals from private ambulance companies. It was certain that the Council would accept the recommendation, since the aldermen were in the room at the time and no one spoke out against the idea.
“We’re not going to let you down, and we won’t let the citizens down, either,” Council President Joseph C. Kibler told the Fire Board.
Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said there are only two ambulance companies with state permits, called “certificates of need,” to operate in Niagara County: Rural/Metro and Twin City Ambulance.
She said whoever is hired, the city won’t pay that company. The ambulance company will make its money by billing users.
That has been a major source of income for the city up until now. Ambulance fees have long been the city’s fourth-highest source of revenue, behind property taxes, sales taxes and state aid. This year’s budget projected $600,000 in ambulance charges, a figure that has been reached, or nearly so, in recent years.
McCaffrey said, “This is a decision the city had to make based on the city’s serious fiscal condition.”
She said the city is avoiding the approximately $300,000 cost of replacing both of its ambulances “in the next year or two.”
Also, said McCaffrey, once the city ambulance service is done away with, the city will reduce staffing levels for each fire shift from nine men to seven, hoping to save big money on overtime.
The Fire Board ordered the manning reduction April 22. It took effect May 1, but the next day, the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association obtained a temporary restraining order forbidding the cut. It lasted until June 25, when State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III lifted it, refusing a union request for a permanent bar on the cuts.
At present, the city, which has 38 firefighters counting the chief, has four fire platoons, two of which work each day, one for 10 hours and the other for 14.
If there are absences because of vacations, illness or any other reason, the department calls in men from the idle platoons until it reaches nine present for duty. The fill-ins are paid time-and-a-half for the entire shift.
McCaffrey said that through Thursday, the city had paid $426,000 in fire overtime this year, including $101,000 in the past four weeks. “This cannot continue,” she said.
Union President Kevin W. Pratt said the high overtime is a function of the shrunken department. The city laid off seven firefighters at the beginning of the year. “The overtime’s generated by the fact there’s 38 men with a nine-man minimum manning,” he said.
But a new union contract would be needed to change the four-platoon scheduling system, and no talks are going on to replace the pact that ran out at the end of 2012.
The union has filed for binding state arbitration over the staffing level reduction, but the city has filed a lawsuit seeking a ruling to prevent such arbitration.
The only vote against parking the ambulances came from Fire Board member Mark Provenzano. He said he had questions about what the quality of the replacement service would be.
He asked, “Will it be paramedics or EMTs (emergency medical technicians), and what will the response time be? We have three minutes now.”
After a 45-minute closed session, Provenzano said he didn’t receive answers to those questions.
Fire Board President Peter P. Robinson, who also is the city Republican Party chairman, said the national response time standard is eight minutes.
He said the board’s recommendation is to “keep our ambulance service that’s in the city as close to national standards as possible.” Robinson said that will include response to every rescue call by firefighters, but in a fire truck, not an ambulance.
“That’s what every city does,” Robinson said.
Pratt agreed with McCaffrey that the 6-year-old ambulances need to be replaced. “Actually, both of them are in terrible running condition,” he said.
But he said fire trucks don’t have advanced life-support equipment. “They have basic equipment to care for the patient while we wait for the ambulance,” Pratt said.