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Alter finds funding for more EMS, fire services

Wednesday, August 4, 2021 by Jo Clifton

When City Council Member Alison Alter heard that the Loop 360/Davenport Fire and EMS Station would not be opening in Fiscal Year 2022 as planned, she thought of how savings from that station could be used to help the Austin Fire Department and Austin Travis County EMS.

She laid out a plan for use of the savings on the City Council Message Board and pushed for those ideas at Tuesday’s work session. Twenty-four firefighters recently participated in a training designed to help prepare them for a fire event in the wildland-urban interface, and that training will allow the firefighters to train the remainder of the department. Alter said the city could use $300,000 originally intended for the Loop 360/Davenport station.

Additionally, Alter said she had identified some key one-time resilience investments for AFD, including generator repairs, armored vests and some equipment specifically related to fighting wildfires.

For EMS, Alter recommended two one-time investments that would allow medics to respond to active shooter events, such as the one that recently occurred on Sixth Street. Those include active attacker training, which “would provide a one-day awareness course for all personnel and additional training for certain medics and command oversight,” Alter wrote. The funding could also help pay for upgrades to current safety equipment, including “higher-level ballistic vests to protect medics” in dangerous situations.

Interim EMS Chief Jasper Brown told Council that the department currently has 115 vacancies. Covid-19 caused a slowdown at the academies, he said, because they were only able to hold 20-person classes instead of the usual 30. However, Brown said there is currently a class with 33 members that will graduate in October. Another class is scheduled for January, he said, adding that he is pushing his staff to speed up the academy.

In addition to vacancies among medical personnel, Brown revealed that he has lost five members of his billing team, explaining that EMS is behind and sending out 20,000 bills. In response to a question from Alter, he said his department is hiring temporary employees to help catch up. City Manager Spencer Cronk said his staff was aware of the need for additional help in billing and assured Alter that the matter would be taken care of. She said she wanted to sit down with him to discuss how to get her amendments into the budget.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents the downtown area, asked Brown about additional medics downtown. He told her that the city is renovating a building at 12 Waller, just four blocks from Sixth Street. The new station will give crews a place to rest between calls and write reports, he said, adding that he expects to move in next month.

Tovo asked Brown whether he needed the funding for additional personnel downtown. He said yes, but Alter said, “We can add money for medics downtown but we don’t have the medics to do that.” Brown agreed, saying if given the money he would put more medics downtown using overtime.

Even though Alter identified the funds she wants to see used for firefighters and EMS, Mayor Steve Adler warned her that finding the money would not guarantee where it would go in the new budget. He said usually any money that is saved in a General Fund department goes into the General Fund and may not be designated for the department where the savings occurred. As always, it will take six votes for Alter’s amendments to make it into the budget.

Also Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Escott told Council that the city could potentially collect an additional $8.3 million in medical reimbursements by following the recommendations of a recently released efficiency study. Escott was quoting from a study of Austin Public Health, EMS, the Austin Fire Department and his own department, the Office of Chief Medical Officer.

According to the study by Public Consulting Group Inc., the city should consider significant increases to its charges for ambulance services, review its charity care policy in order to collect more revenue from Medicare and Medicaid, and review its billing practices to assist in collecting more funds.

Consultants noted that even though EMS has recently increased its fees, Austin’s charges are at least 25 percent lower than they should be, especially given the large territory EMS has to cover. The report said, “Austin’s charges are comparable to San Antonio’s charges, but are significantly less than the charges for the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. The cost of service and regional comparisons of fees for other ambulance providers point to the need for the city to increase fees by 25 percent or more.”

The study notes that the city has many out-of-town visitors, some of whom use Austin’s EMS services. Numerous other emergency service providers charge an extra fee for nonresidents, and the study says Austin should consider doing the same. The study’s authors also recommended that the city work to bring in more federal money for charity cases. Brown said that while the city would eventually benefit from the additional money, payments are so slow they would likely not arrive until the next fiscal year.

Brown was responding to questions from Alter, who has been leading the charge for additional funding for both EMS and the Fire Department.

The consultants reiterated throughout the study that EMS, Austin Fire, Austin Public Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer should work together to identify areas for cooperation and collaboration. The study placed a high priority on holding a facilitated workshop within the next six months for the different departments to increase their efficiency and enhance health equity in the community.

Adler said he would ask staff to put up a schedule on Wednesday for Thursday’s budget discussions.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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