Visalia considers doubling their fire department’s paramedic squad

City holds first of two public hearing to amend sales tax measure spending plan to add a second unit of paramedics to the Visalia Fire Department

VISALIA – It’s been two years since the Visalia Fire Department presented a plan for the city to fund an emergency medical service unit, and it is working so well, they are asking the city to add a second unit.

Visalia Fire Chief Dan Griswold presented plans for a second EMS squad to the Visalia City Council at its March 21 meeting. The reason behind the EMS unit was the growing call volume for medical aids, calls not involving fires but requiring medical assistance. Call volumes have steadily increased since 2014 to more than 15,500 and two-thirds of those calls are for EMS and rescue. 

Squad 51, named because the unit of paramedics is based at Fire Station 51 in downtown Visalia, responded to 18% of the EMS calls VFD responded to, saving firefighters from splitting their resources between fires and EMS on 900 calls in the first seven months of the program. In the first five months of the new unit, Squad 51’s medically-equipped SUV saved fire engines from traveling nearly 500 miles crisscrossing the city on calls not requiring an engine or ladder truck. 

Stationing a second squad somewhere else in the city could theoretically cover twice as many calls and save twice as many miles on expensive fire apparatus. Under his proposal, Griswold said the department would add three more paramedics rotating on a 10-hours per day, six day workweek to ensure there are at least two paramedics on duty to respond to calls during the day. EMS calls are less random than fire calls and most medical aid calls are for heart attacks, strokes and vehicle accidents, things that typically occur during the day when people are more active, and lately, the unit has seen an increase in drug overdose situations.

“Our proposal for squad phase two is three additional single roll paramedics and one additional vehicle which is basically a mirror of what we currently have,” Giswold said.

EMS calls traditionally rise after 6 a.m. and fall after 11 p.m. with peak time between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. In order to respond to as many calls as possible, both units will operate from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and they will split the weekend with one crew operating on Saturday and the other on Sunday.  Squad 51 responds using a converted Ford Expedition. The SUV is not only more agile in maneuvering narrow downtown streets and alleyways but it is also cheaper to maintain than a light engine. While the vehicle is staffed by paramedics and stocked with medical supplies, it does not serve the same function as an ambulance because it will not transport patients.

“We think this is the best use of this resource,” Griswold said.

In order to add another unit, Griswold is asking the city council to amend its Measure N budget, which is reviewed and approved biennially by the city council.  Approved by Visalia voters in November 2016, about 90% of the half-cent sales tax funds a portion of the fire department, police department, and other essential services such as streets, parks and recreation. 

The second unit will cost less than the first because the city had to hire an EMS coordinator position to launch and oversee the unit. Adding three new paramedics and a medically-equipped SUV will cost the city an additional $202,500 in Measure N funds for the remainder of this fiscal year, $406,300 in 2022-23, $437,800 in 2023-24 and $455,900 in 2024-25. Together, the EMS units will cost the city more than $1 million per year beginning in 2023-24. Even with the addition of the new squad, the city is projecting at least a 1% growth in sales tax revenue through 2025-26, leaving the district with an ending cash balance at least an estimated $5.5 million in every year except for 2023-24, when the essential services fund will only be left with $1.7 million at the end of the year, before picking up the following year.

Councilmember Brett Taylor asked Griswold how long he expected it would take to recruit the positions, how long it would be for training before they could begin operating the second unit. Griswold said he would like to do a continuous recruitment, meaning the unit will always take applications to have a constant flow of candidates. 

Background checks can take three to four months, followed by two to three weeks of training to be accredited as a paramedic for advanced life support through the Central California Emergency Services AGency, which oversees EMTs, paramedics and ambulance companies in Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Madera counties. In all, Griswold said it would take between four and five months from the time they hire a position until that position is ready to hit the streets.

The city council approved the amendment to Measure N unanimously. The March 21 meeting was the first of two public hearings required to amend the sales tax measure’s spending plan. The second public hearing will be held at a future Visalia City Council meeting. 

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