The West Hartford Fire Department will use a FEMA grant to fund the majority of the cost of purchasing an ambulance for use by its paramedics.
By Ronni Newton
The Town Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to approve the purchase of a paramedic support vehicle for the West Hartford Fire Department, with 90 percent of the cost to be funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant.
Town Manager Matt Hart told Council members that the cost of the vehicle plus associated equipment will be $220,000, with $200,000 coming from the FEMA grant and $20,000 being paid out of the town’s Capital Non-Recurring Expenditure (CNRE) fund. This is the first time the West Hartford Fire Department has been able to accept this type of grant from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Program since the paramedic function was assumed by the department just over a year ago, on Aug. 1, 2016.
According to the fire department, 72 percent of calls are now medical-related.
The design of the support vehicle is an ambulance, however the intent is not to use it for patient transport purposes but rather as an intercept vehicle for paramedics going to calls, Hart said. It could also be used to transport West Hartford fire or police personnel who become injured while on duty at a call.
Only in cases where AMR Ambulance, the town’s contracted Basic Life Safety (BLS) provider, is delayed or unavailable and an ambulance is needed for an emergency situation, would the vehicle be used for patient transport. Existing personnel are able to drive the vehicle, Hart said.
According to Fire Chief Gary Allyn, the vehicle would also be used for firefighter rehabilitation at the scene of a fire. It will have available equipment to help the firefighters hydrate, check vital signs, and provide other needed care.
The vote was split along party lines. Democrat Judy Casperson abstained from voting because she was not present for the discussion.
Republican Town Council member Chris Barnes said that the grant had just been brought up in the Public Safety Committee meeting and he expressed concerns about the need to make a quick decision before the financials of the paramedic program can be studied. “We should be looking at ways we can outsource activities because that’s a way the town can save money overall and this program is moving in the opposite direction,” Barnes said. He is concerned that this will be the first step in expanding the paramedic program to BLS service.
Barnes also noted his concern with an issue related to billing for paramedic services that Allyn said is in the process of being resolved.
Allyn explained that Medicare currently will pay only one provider, and has chosen AMR, which has not agreed to bundle its billing and reimburse the town for its costs. Paramedic services are being billed for “denial” to secondary insurers, and in some cases patients are being held responsible for the payments. The town has recently had to write off two charges where the patient has been financially unable to pay the $785 paramedic charge.
Minority Leader Denise Hall praised the service of the fire department and said she has “the utmost respect for the job that they do and the work that they provide.” She noted that she had expressed concern, when the Council approved the paramedic program, about use of the heavy apparatus racing through town to medical calls and the smaller-sized ambulance vehicle would be safer.
However, Hall decided to vote against the the purchase of the vehicle because the town is still “fiddling and tweaking some of the issues” with the paramedic program and she wants to fully analyze the financials. She said the opportunity for this type of grant might come up again “when we’re at the point where we’re more comfortable.” Also, Hall said, with the remaining uncertainty surrounding the state budget, even small allocations from the town’s CNRE fund should be carefully considered.
“We are talking about the opportunity to be given money to purchase a piece of lifesaving equipment and I don’t think this is a time where we can pass up that opportunity,” Democratic Town Council member Dallas Dodge said, expressing his support for obtaining the vehicle. “This is supplementing the program, not expanding it.”
Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said that the billing problems and the grant are two completely separate issues. The intercept vehicle will remove personnel from heavy vehicles, will provide a ready means to transport injured fire or police personnel, and will be available for use if AMR is delayed.
“If you look at the purpose those are three good reasons why we should have this added to our inventory,” Davidoff said. He said he trusts the judgment of the town manager and fire chief that this will improve the safety and efficiency of town staff.
Mayor Shari Cantor said that the paramedic program has already “been a tremendous experience for so many residents.”
The state budget situation is creating a drain on all communities, and Cantor said we need to be sure we are taking care of our residents in the best way possible.
One of those ways is utilizing grant money, Cantor said. “This program is new … this grant came fast and furious, we didn’t have as much time to vet,” Cantor said. However, she said she supports the professional recommendation that this “is a significant opportunity to support what we’re doing.”
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