Medic unit snarled in Fire Department budget debate -
Published Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:13 pm
Medic unit snarled in Fire Department budget debate

An ambulance based near 16th and Spring Streets is playing an outsize role in the City of Omaha's budget debate.

Activated in the spring by former Mayor Jim Suttle and Fire Chief Mike McDonnell, Medic 3 is meant to boost lagging response times in southeast Omaha — at an annual cost of roughly $725,000.

Now that medic unit is tangled up in arguments over Fire Department finances and a union lawsuit over Omaha's adherence to national response time benchmarks.

Mayor Jean Stothert balanced her 2014 budget by suggesting Fire Department layoffs and proposing the removal of two pieces of equipment from service.

The debate over Medic 3 presents the city with a question: How much can the city spend to protect the health and safety of its citizens without breaking its budget?

Stothert has said she'd prefer to see the South Omaha medic unit pulled off the street, but she stressed that fire officials can submit other proposals to meet a $90.6 million suggested budget.

The Mayor's Office said Stothert was unavailable for comment Friday.

Meanwhile, members of the City Council — including President Pete Festersen and Garry Gernandt — say they hope to avoid pulling fire equipment from service as the council reviews Stothert's budget before approving it later this year.

“It just made sense to have an advanced life-support unit stationed at 16th and Spring Streets, so you have a full circle of coverage,” said Gernandt, a South Omaha representative who has a bit of a personal connection to Medic 3. That ambulance sped the veteran councilman to a hospital after a recent heart attack at Spring Lake Park.

“I was glad they were there,” Gernandt said.

But there's considerable debate about just how necessary another city ambulance is.

The fire union argues that its labor contract and a 2011 order from Suttle require the city to adhere to safety standards from the National Fire Protection Association. A new executive order from Stothert says those standards are a “goal” that the city “will attempt to comply with,” forming part of the basis of the union's lawsuit.

Union officials say the Fire Department has not met those standards since at least 2011. In its lawsuit, the union acknowledges that the department falls short of response time standards in most of the city.

Cuts that remove rigs or firefighters would worsen the situation, the union has said.

The mayor, in an affidavit submitted as evidence for the lawsuit, said the fire contract also recognizes potential budget restraints.

“I strongly believe that public safety is an extremely important function of local government, including the City of Omaha,” Stothert said in the affidavit.

She added, “It is my desire that the public safety departments continue to provide excellent service to the public within the budget parameters and limitations that exist.”

The city staffed 14 ambulances across the city last year, before Medic 3 was activated. Department statistics say those medics responded to more than 45,000 medical calls in 2012, a considerable share of the Fire Department's daily load of fire and emergency calls.

During testimony over the union lawsuit this week, McDonnell said he consulted with fire union and department officials, and analyzed call volume, population density and national safety standards before bringing Medic 3 on line.

McDonnell said he then sent an April 26 request to Suttle to activate Medic 3. McDonnell said he believed the ambulance was necessary to comply with national standards and the union contract and to provide “service to the citizens.”

Fire officials have long argued that medic unit response times lag in portions of southeast Omaha.

The Fire Department has pulled medic units from service to save money before. In 2011, McDonnell pulled one ambulance from the department's busy downtown fire station. But that decision, McDonnell argued to Suttle in his April letter, created a domino effect that affected response times in southeast Omaha. Other surrounding ambulances — including Medic 31 at 25th and L Streets — had to absorb the load, McDonnell wrote at the time.

The chief said Medic 31 responded to more incidents outside of its densely populated territory last year. Other out-of-territory ambulances had to cover for Medic 31 while it was on another call.

Department analysis “clearly illustrates a much diminished service to the citizens that we are sworn to serve in the area,” McDonnell wrote.

The trend leads to lengthened response times, fire officials say, and therefore less compliance with national benchmarks.

Bringing Medic 3 into service, McDonnell wrote, would allow the department to respond to downtown's high volume of emergency calls and increase Medic 31's ability to respond to its primary assignments.

In court, McDonnell said the Fire Department couldn't meet its obligations under the fire contract, or national guidelines, with its proposed budget.

Stothert said her executive order on meeting those guidelines wasn't an attempt to amend the fire contract, but rather to state her philosophy as mayor. Further, she said, a city department is responsible for meeting its obligations under the constraints of its budget.

“Though the Mayoral Administration is involved in putting together a budget for each department, each department is run by a department head,” Stothert said in her affidavit. “It is the responsibility of the Fire Chief to use the resources allocated by the City Council to perform the duties of the department while meanwhile following the (labor contract).”

World-Herald staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

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