Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Sounding the alarm on city ambulances

Sacramento firefighter-paramedics wheel away a shopper who fainted at Arden Fair mall on Black Friday in 2013.
Sacramento firefighter-paramedics wheel away a shopper who fainted at Arden Fair mall on Black Friday in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

This one has bugged me ever since I looked into it: Why do we need two Sacramento city firefighters in ambulances?

Since they’re responding to medical calls – not battling blazes – the public would be served just as well by staffing ambulances with paramedics or EMTs. Making that change would also save taxpayers a lot of money – in the neighborhood of $400,000 per ambulance per year.

This issue has been on City Hall’s radar for years. I’ve written several editorials mentioning it, studies have highlighted it, and some city officials have talked about it. But there has been precious little progress.

Now, City Councilman Jeff Harris has taken up the cause. He points out that while the Fire Department’s ambulance service was supposed to pay for itself when it started in 1993, the city is subsidizing it by more than $6.5 million a year. Harris wants to cut expenses by staffing all 15 city ambulances with one paramedic and one even less expensive EMT – the setup in several area agencies, including Sacramento Metro Fire.

Walt White, fire chief since July 2014, also is pushing the change to make the department more efficient and to improve service to residents.

Besides the savings, Harris and White raise a safety concern. Medical emergencies make up about 60 percent of service calls, so ambulance crews are busier than other firefighters. But they work the same schedule – 48 hours on, 96 hours off. That’s a formula for fatigue.

“How would you like to have a paramedic working the 47th hour of a 48-hour shift trying to locate a vein in order to insert an IV into you or a family member?” Craig Powell, president of the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, asked recently in a piece he wrote for Inside Publications.

Harris and White also make the case that hiring more EMTs will help improve the department’s diversity because the training is less expensive and takes less time.

The councilman says the switch can be done in a way that no firefighters lose their jobs, though fewer would be hired in the future. Now, 370 Sacramento firefighters are receiving extra pay for paramedic duty, a total of more than $3.2 million a year in salary and benefits.

The firefighters union and its allies are dead set against moving away from firefighter-paramedics. During the budget debate this spring, Harris pushed for staffing just two ambulances with paramedics, but was shot down.

White met on this subject Thursday with Brian Rice, president of Local 522, then sent the union a formal proposal. But under its contract, the union can’t be forced to discuss, much less consider, this change. There’s no indication it wants to do so.

So it could be a long wait for any movement, since the firefighter contract runs until June 2018. If City Hall can’t get this done, then there’s little reason to hope for other cost-saving reforms.

While this stalemate makes no financial sense at all, there is a certain political logic.

The firefighters union is a major player in city elections, handing out prized endorsements and doling out sizable donations. (It supported Harris’ opponent last year.)

Its political action committee gave $50,000 directly and another $67,000 in independent expenditures to Mayor Kevin Johnson’s failed bid to gain “strong mayor” powers last November.

It also bankrolled the campaign for Measure U, a half-cent sales tax hike to restore fire, police and other services slashed during the recession. The PAC donated $25,000 directly to Yes on Measure U and spent another $100,000 on an independent campaign that blanketed the city with yard signs, mailers and robocalls.

Voters overwhelmingly approved it in November 2012, and the sales tax hike is now paying for about 110 fire personnel – and justifying higher spending.

In January, the City Council approved the rather generous contract with firefighters. In June, the council passed a budget that boosted Fire Department spending by $1.6 million a year in Measure U money on top of the $14.6 million that City Manager John Shirey recommended so that the city could add a fire company in Natomas, including $200,000 for firefighter-paramedics.

That additional spending means that the city could face a bigger deficit when Measure U expires in March 2019. It makes it almost certain that the city will ask voters to renew Measure U. And it would be shocking if the firefighters union didn’t finance that campaign, too.

If the sales tax is continued, that would provide the money to keep all the new firefighters – and an excuse not to change ambulance staffing.

It looks suspiciously like a quid pro quo between the firefighters and politicians. Oh no, they tell us, unions don’t have a tight grip on City Hall. Could have fooled me.