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Safety Commissioner Levy calls for consolidation of local fire, EMS

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Public Safety Commissioner Mike Levy is calling for an in-depth study of a consolidation of the area’s Fire and Emergency Medical Service departments. Levy’s statement came as part of what began as a budget discussion but quickly became another in a long line of commission meetings marked by deep criticisms of EMS management, chiefly from Levy.


Levy’s nod to service consolidation read much like a culmination of his broad concerns about the area’s ambulance and medic service. “I don’t want (this) to be a surprise, but at some point I am going to suggest that this commission ask for the beginning of a fairly intense examination of a consolidation between fire and EMS to see if there would be better management and better controls,” Levy said. “We could save a lot of money too.”


EMS Employee Association head Tony Marquardt did his best to focus the commission on what he called the “bigger picture,” going so far as to suggest that Levy’s line of questioning was “marginalizing” other business. For Marquardt, this meant more resources in Travis County’s portion of the jurisdiction and wondered why advisory oversight of the emergency medical service was not regional.


However, Marquardt’s question came as a response to Levy’s criticisms. As such, it was not well toned – or aimed – for the situation at hand. It nodded to recent appearances by Levy during the Citizens’ Communications portion of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee meetings, where Levy has called for extensive audits of EMS operations.


“Mr. Levy, you seem to be visiting the Audit and Finance Committee quite a bit,” Marquardt said. “I want to remind the commission that there are three vacant ambulances in Travis County…We continue to visit these things that are marginal with the group…I would really hope that we focus on a more global issue that is probably more relevant to the citizens of Austin and Travis County, and make responsible recommendations to Council members.”


After the hearing, Marquardt told In Fact Daily that he intended to communicate the issue to commissioners in a more effective manner. “The point is, I don’t see how the (city) commission can advise appropriately on a system that is an Austin/Travis County system and not address the county,” he said.


Monday’s fireworks began in a familiar place. Levy has, for some time, insinuated and directly accused EMS management of covering up vacancy stats. When commission chair Michael Lauderdale brought up the subject, EMS chief of staff James Shamard rattled off a list of specific vacancies.


This time around, Levy didn’t bother to ask Shamard directly about those stats. Instead, he inserted his own number in to the conversation. “There have been 56 separations for various reasons…over about a period of a year and a half,” Levy suggested.


Shamard backed up. “We lose on average about three people every two months…we’ve not lost 56 people in a year…not even close,” he said.


Neither side gave in.


Levy and Shamard also battled over the move to a new EMS ambulance staffing system. Levy has long been critical of the change. (See In Fact Daily, March 6, 2012.)


Monday, Levy wondered why Shamard and EMS brass had not come back to the commission or City Council when they moved from a pilot program for the staffing change to a more wide scale roll out.


“I recall hearing both you (Shamard) and (EMS Medical Director) Paul Hinchy say we would only have (the change) in four core stations and we would see how it works out, there wouldn’t be a role out until you guys could come back and talk to us about how this has been measured and assessed,” said Levy. “And now we’re rolling out…”


Lauderdale interjected. “I do remember that. What’s happened?” he asked.


Shamard insisted that it was the department’s intent to return for the commission’s opinion on the matter. “All along the way our intent has been and is…to move forward,” he said. “We did start out with four stations – or around four or five…but our plan is to move forward.


“This is working literally all over the world,” Shamard continued a bit later. “We are not charting new territory here.”


However, Shamard added what sounded very much like a motivating factor in that decision. “Well, I guess to back up, you didn’t endorse it the first time we brought the request up.”


“If I didn’t do a good job of articulating our intent, I apologize,” Shamard said.


As scintillating as Monday’s discussion was, Marquardt says that the ongoing battle between Levy and Shamard was overshadowing more substantive discussions. “Mike is right: There are things that James is not quite honest about,” Marquardt told In Fact Daily. Still, Marquardt noted that issues were getting “marginalized” because of what he called Levy’s control over the EMS agenda.


Levy told In Fact Daily that his questions for Shamard had nothing to do with any personal feelings. He noted that patients were suffering due to EMS mismanagement, and he extended the blame all the way to the office of City Manager Marc Ott


He further noted that, in his responses, Shamard had not denied the notion that EMS brass would be back to the commission and City Council for further discussion of the staffing changes “It’s about integrity,” Levy continued. “It’s about our role in the process.”

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