By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Despite what its name suggests, the Visalia Fire Department continues to see its medical related calls increase far beyond its need for firefighting.
More than two-thirds of the fire department’s calls for service are for Emergency Medical Services (EMS), commonly referred to as medical aids, according to the department’s 2018 annual report. In an effort to better to respond to those calls, the City of Visalia is moving forward with a plan to create an EMS unit to specifically respond to calls for medical aide.
At its July 15 meeting, the Visalia City Council unanimously authorized staff to move forward with creating a new EMS unit and hiring a new EMS coordinator position to oversee the paramedics in the unit. Interim Fire Chief Doyle Sewell said phase 1 of the plan, which should have been implemented in 2018-19, calls for three paramedics, a supervisor and one vehicle. The vehicle will be staffed by two paramedics from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Phase 2 of the plan is set to begin in 2022-23 and will add six more paramedics and another vehicle to provide a 24-hour, 365 days per year unit.
Sewell said several key changes were made to the program since it was first presented to the city council on April 15. The department has decided to buy and convert a non-emergency SUV instead of purchasing a light engine or other emergency vehicle. The smaller vehicle will not only be more agile in maneuvering narrow downtown streets and alleyways but it will also be cheaper. Sewell said the initial estimates for the emergency vehicle were between $175,000 and $205,000. The SUV, such as a Tahoe or Expedition, its conversion with rear slide out doors for medical supplies, and emergency lighting and paint would cost almost half at $105,000. The vehicle is not an ambulance and will not transport patients.
“Downtown streets are compacted and this vehicle should help with response times and have less wear and tear and fuel costs,” Sewell said in an interview after the meeting.
The second change was downgrading the position from a fire department battalion chief to a more specialized EMS coordinator. Sewell included a description of a similar position with the City of Ventura, Calif. Duties for the position included developing emergency programs, overseeing paramedics, acts as a liaison for state regulatory agencies, and manages confidential records, reports and documents. The position required applicants to be a California registered nurse (RN), a certified CPR instructor, a bachelor’s degree in nursing, have emergency room nursing experience and two years of experience performing administrative support activities in the field of EMS.
“We wanted to hone in on the mission of what Measure N called for,” Sewell said.
Mayor Bob Link asked if the position would be an employee or a contractor. Sewell said it would be a new classification within the fire department. Unlike a battalion chief, the EMS coordinator will not be considered a public safety employee. This means the city will pay a lower percent of their pension within the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
“I agree with this program and we need to get started,” Link said. “You need the medical coordinator. This person is an expert in the medical field.”
Councilmember Brian Poochigian was in favor of the EMS program but not the coordinator position. Poochigian said he would hire a battalion chief to give the department more flexibility in administration between EMS and fire.
“I’d like to see this get pushed until we get a new chief,” Poochigian said. “We’re doing a disadvantage to the new chief we are hiring. He may want a whole different coordinator.”
Councilmember Phil Cox said he wanted to move forward immediately because the EMS program has already been approved by the Measure N Oversight Committee and the City Council.
“This is a program that the people and council wanted, so in answer to Poochigian’s comments, this is not the fire chief’s program,” Cox said. “This is our program overseen by the fire department.”
The program is estimated to cost $8.9 million over 9 years and will be funded through the Essential Services fund, which comprises 90% of Measure N sales tax monies. During public comment, Harold Myers said he disagreed with the entire program because it was not part of the original plan for Measure N. He said the original citizens committee that vetted Measure N never saw anything on a plan to create an EMS unit within the fire department on the original project list.
“That project wasn’t funded under Measure N and would have never passed the smell test,” Myers said. “By excluding from Measure N and creating that document to Measure N committee, it wasn’t represented property to the original committee. Three years down the road, and there’s a brand new project funded by Measure N.”
Myers said the money, which totals over $1 million in 2022-23 alone, could be spent on other things that were part of the original plan for Measure N, such as road projects.
“If this project was available and not presented then it is going against what was approved,” Myers said. “If you want to go out and ask citizens to approve a [ballot measure], this is a bad example.”
Vice Mayor Steve Nelson said not moving forward on the project would be a disservice to the citizens who have been promised more efficient EMS response by the City.
“We need to get this moving forward,” Nelsen said. “If it works well, and shows efficiencies, I would be proponent to fast track the next SUV on. It’s time to stop thinking about it and get it started.”
Nelsen made the motion to initiate the process for creating the EMS unit. It was seconded by Cox, and passed 3-1. Poochigian was the only ‘No’ vote and Councilmember Greg Collins was absent.
Sewell said he will begin ordering the SUV which should take about six weeks to convert for EMS. He said once the Measure N plan has been amended to reflect the EMS coordinator position, he will begin hiring for the supervisory role as well as three paramedics. Sewell said the creating the unit should help the fire department recruit paramedic/firefighters which are needed on every engine. He said the hybrid positions require more training and are in high demand. By offering paramedic only positions, those employees may be inclined to take up firefighting at a later to date as an opportunity to move up in the organization.