WATERTOWN — The city has set a deadline for Jefferson County to agree to help reduce the fire department’s emergency medical calls by next January or it will stop going on EMS calls altogether.
At the request of Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith, a change in a resolution on Tuesday night’s council agenda was made public late Friday afternoon that the city plans to end going on all EMS calls if Jefferson County doesn’t agree to make a change that would mean 911 county dispatch would determine which EMS calls the fire department would go on.
Mayor Smith and the majority of City Council want county dispatch to use a complicated system, called Emergency Management Dispatch, or EMD, that would result in a drastic reduction of EMS calls for the fire department.
It was also learned late Friday afternoon that the city plans to put the fire department’s rescue truck up for auction. In a controversial decision last month, the majority of council decided to take the rescue truck off the road permanently, but held off eliminating all EMS calls.
In a work session on Monday night, council members made it known that they want the county to establish the EMD protocols for fire department emergency medical calls.
Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said Friday afternoon she was caught off guard that the resolution on the agenda would be changed from when she received it on Thursday afternoon to Friday and that it now sets a Jan. 1, 2022 deadline.
“This is bait and switch,” she said, “to what we heard on Monday. There was no discussion that it was going to be a year away. This is crazy. This is going to be a risk to the residents.”
Mayor Smith said that the deadline was inadvertently left out of the earlier version of the resolution, so he corrected the mistake and had the new resolution sent out to council members and the public after it was discovered.
Mayor Smith recalled that he first brought up a deadline of three or four months on Monday night, but then it was determined it would be better to cut off EMS calls after the county goes through budget deliberations in the fall and implements it when its fiscal year starts Jan. 1.
Mayor Smith reiterated that the fire department’s EMS calls should go through the same process that the county uses for other fire departments in the county.
“Why shouldn’t the residents of the city get the same service?” he said, adding that they pay the same amount of taxes. “Why shouldn’t 25 percent of the population in the county get that?”
If county dispatch goes to the EMD system, the county will have to hire an additional five dispatchers at a cost of $300,000, said Scott A. Gray, the county Board of Legislators chairman.
Years ago, the city decided to get out of doing dispatch, so the issue would not be between the city and the county but the county and Guilfoyle Ambulance Service, the private company that handles ambulance calls within the city.
“It’ll be up to 15 county legislators to decide, not five city council members,” Mr. Gray said.
In an interview before the second resolution was made public, Mr. Gray suggested that the fire department go on all calls or the city should stop responding to all EMS calls. He did not know then that it appears the city is ready to end EMS calls if the county doesn’t agree to make the change to EMD.
But Mayor Smith said Fire Chief Matthew Timerman and Bruce G. Wright, Guilfoyle’s CEO and president, think that EMD is the safest way to handle EMS calls.
County dispatchers now notify the fire department after a call comes in to them and they automatically send out a fire engine to the scene no matter the seriousness of the call.
Proponents say the fire department almost always gets to a scene first and that it saves lives.
Council members believe the fire department goes on far too many calls and that they could be drastically reduced with the EMD protocols.
The news of auctioning off the rescue truck also was abruptly learned late on Friday afternoon.
Fire Chief Timerman only learned of the city’s plans to put the rescue truck on AuctionInc. only after the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting came out on Friday. He was not consulted with the decision to do that.
“It’s hard to keep up with all the decisions,” Chief Timerman said. “My recommendation is to take our time and make them in a timely fashion and think them through.”
Mayor Smith requested the rescue truck go up for sale along with a series of other surplus equipment that the city wants to get rid of, he said.
“We’re not going to use it,” he said. “It would just sit there and deappreciate. We’re doing what we do with other surplus equipment.”
But Chief Timerman said the rescue truck contained some “jaws of life” equipment to extricate accident victims during vehicle accidents. The hydraulic rescue tool, a generator and cord reel are too big and cannot be transferred to any other vehicle in the department’s fleet.
“I’m just grateful that there hasn’t been a crisis” that would need the equipment, Chief Timerman said.
If the city doesn’t sell the truck, the equipment could still be available to the fire department and go out on a call when it was needed.
But Mayor Smith said that the department has some battery-operated extrication equipment that it can use, while the chief explained that there will be times that it needs more than that for bigger accident scenes.
Chief Timerman wondered why not just keep the vehicle for those occasions.
That situation shows that Mayor Smith doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that he’s making decisions without the input from the experts, said Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Firefighters’ Association, Local 191.
For years, the city has debated the issue of the rescue truck with the fire department and its union. The truck was mothballed amid a long contract dispute with the union.
Guifoyle Ambulance uses the EMD system when calls come into their dispatchers, as do county 911 dispatchers for the towns in the county.
Councilwoman Ruggiero questioned the timing of bringing up the EMS issue now during the ongoing pandemic. Residents are worried about attending council meetings at a time when COVID-19 cases are steadily increasing.
That means they cannot make their voices heard about the proposed change involving the county in public, she said.
The City Council meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the third-floor council chambers of City Hall, 245 Washington St.