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EMT plan for YFD requires caution, study

Fire departments operated and financed by local governments increasingly have become misnomers. Today’s firefighters no longer fit neatly into the traditional pigeonhole of men and women donning bulky protective gear to valiantly extinguish residential and commercial blazes.

The proof is in the numbers. According to the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, in 1980, a full 37 percent of emergency service calls reported blazes threatening property and lives. Flash forward nearly 40 years to 2018, and the proportion of fire calls had dropped to a mere 5 percent of total call volume.

Most attribute the gargantuan decline in structural fires to much more stringent fire codes and greater public awareness of fire-prevention strategies. As a result, the role of the 21st-century firefighter has morphed more into that of a first responder to medical emergencies. In 2018, medical-aid calls in the U.S. totaled 23.5 million compared with 1.3 million calls for fire control, the NFPA reports.

Not surprisingly, the city of Youngstown mirrors those trends.

According to city fire Chief Barry Finley, during the first three months of 2021, the YFD handled 762 calls. Of that total, however, only 24 were for house fires and six for vehicle blazes. The vast majority sought emergency medical aid or other services.

Therein lies the premise of a proposal Finley recently presented to city council members. Finley is calling on council and the firefighters union to warm up to a plan to offer more comprehensive emergency medical services. On the surface, Finley’s logic appears sound, but as with many contentious issues, the devil is in the details.

Specifically, the chief seeks additional funding to hire five firefighters, one more assistant fire chief, one additional fire inspector, one more shop mechanic and additional emergency medical equipment for his crew. The chief did not yet provide dollar figures to accurately gauge the increased cost to the city budget — and city taxpayers — at a time when Youngstown’s coffers continue to dwindle dramatically.

From our vantage point, we have long advocated that local governments’ primary responsibility is to provide essential services. We’ve also long held that implementing services that duplicate those provided by the private sector can create counterproductive competition and saddle taxpayers with new sacrifices.

But this case requires additional thought and study. Finley argues that American Medical Response, the city’s ambulance company, is short-staffed, thereby causing some delays in response times. “Nothing against AMR because they are doing the best they can, but we want to be able to supplement what AMR is out there doing for us,” Finley said.

The chief also emphasized he is not calling — at least not yet — for the fire department to take over AMR’s transport services to hospitals, but said several years from now he would like to consider a YFD-operated ambulance service.

Clearly, Finley’s proposal offers long-term benefits. With more fully trained emergency medical technicians or paramedics (the department of 122 currently has 53 of them) available, trained assistance could be provided more quickly, and in some medical emergencies, every second counts. In addition, it would supplement — not supplant — the EMT and ambulance services of AMR.

But Finley’s plan also is wrought with myriad uncertainties and potential roadblocks. First and foremost would be its cost. In a city reeling from an increasingly smaller base of income-tax revenue, one must ask whether Youngstown’s taxpayers can afford such blue-chip service. That can’t be known until a more detailed projection of the additional costs versus benefits is determined and made public.

Second, do city residents actually want a massive upgrade and would they be willing to foot the bill for an added layer of protection? Public or virtual forums to gauge overall resident sentiments would be in order.

Third, relations between the union and management of the YFD have been sour for some time now. Most recently, a county judge in February upheld a ruling by the State Employee Relations Board that Youngstown leaders committed an unfair labor practice when they abolished three battalion-chief positions. What’s more, according to initial reports, firefighters are cool to Chief Finley’s proposal.

Clearly then, these and other hurdles must be cleared before city leaders can make a realistic and informed decision. Clearly, too, more time must be taken to factor in cost-benefit analyses, residents’ views and firefighters’ feelings. Any rush to judgment now could prove dangerous indeed.

editorial@vindy.com

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