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Travis Commissioners move forward with EMS study

Monday, January 17, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court has acted to move forward with an independent study of its emergency medical response system. When completed, the document should give county officials an idea of what — if any — changes should be made to the service.


Their action came over the objections of Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Union head Steve Stewart. In his testimony on Tuesday, Stewart told the court that he was concerned about the ability of any independent consultant to produce an unbiased report. There are also lingering questions about the way that the City of Austin and Travis County interact when it comes to emergency care.


Still, many emergency services personnel seem to be in favor of the study. Indeed, the commissioners’ unanimous vote was met with a stout round of applause from the uniformed emergency personnel who had filled the courtroom for the debate.


Bob Taylor, who serves both as a member of the Austin/Travis County EMS Advisory Board and as a commissioner for Travis Emergency Services District 3, told the court that each of those entities supports the idea. “As a Travis County citizen … I think it’s refreshing that the court is considering taking a look at and assessing how it’s spending its money … and is there a more efficient way to spend that money,” he added.


Danny Hobby, the executive manager of the County’s Emergency Services division, told the court that the study was a necessary one. “After the assessment is done of all the services … (the consultants will) come up with what I call ‘improvement recommendations’ in the areas that we think — that we hope — they will point out that will make us faster, better, and cheaper,” he said. “We need to, locally, look at how we perform our services knowing that our community is growing.


“As our population grows, as our geography changes, as our new hospitals are being built, as we look at transportation needs — some good roads, some bad roads,” he continued, “then what we want to do is have an assessment done so that we have some improvement recommendations so that we can better our services.”


Stewart delivered a list of his objections to the court. Chief among these was his concern that no consultant would be able to come up with an unbiased report. “Most EMS consultants are employed by fire-based systems that are people who are looking to go to a fire-based system or to a private system,” he told the court. “So finding an EMS consultant that doesn’t come with that bias will be difficult.”


Such a change would represent a shift in the way that Travis County and the City of Austin handle their emergency services division. Currently, that unit functions on its own as a public entity.


After the hearing, Hobby told In Fact Daily that he didn’t think the report would be biased. “That’s one of the things that you hire a consultant for,” he said. “You don’t want to come in  (to) this thing with biases.”


The Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical System has two masters: the City of Austin and Travis County. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt had questions about how the study would be used throughout the whole system.


“We must recognize what we have on the ground, which is that under state law it is an extremely fractured system,” she said. She turned to City of Austin Emergency Services Director Ernie Rodriquez.


“I think moving forward it is likely that we will have these sorts of studies again. My question to you is whether or not it’s your opinion it would be most optimal if we did these studies together,” she asked.


“I believe it would,” he said.


Still, Rodriguez suggested that management wasn’t as divided as the system’s organization might suggest. “When I first came into this system we had a distinct county system and a distinct (city) system,” he continued. “We no longer manage this way. We manage the system as one system.”


For his part, Hobby insisted that the study would also cover the city’s program. “In order for them to … look at the interlocal (agreement) that we have with the City of Austin, then that means they’re going to have to work with the City of Austin and get all of the information that they have.”


Still, the vice chair of the city’s Public Safety Commission has his doubts. In an email, Michael Levy noted that, as it stands, “(W)e … know that (the system) has been recognized as one of the very best pre-hospital care delivery programs in the country.”


He further suggested that “the primary role of the (Travis) consultant would be to give credibility to the County’s Emergency Service Districts’ grand scheme: to break away from A/TCEMS and establish the County’s own separate program in the County, with firefighter/paramedics on Emergency Service District … fire units, and with transportation of patients by for-profit private ambulance companies.”

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