East Palestine chief defends request for new ambulance

EAST PALESTINE – The East Palestine Fire/EMS Department is trying to do something about its aging ambulances and lack of emergency medical technicians.

Fire Chief Brett Todd fielded questions from Councilman Fran Figley and others during a special safety committee meeting Monday.

Mostly, Figley wondered why the department wants a new ambulance when it is already dealing with a lagging EMT roster.

Todd told council last year a new ambulance was needed to replace the oldest one currently being used as back-up. The department has three ambulances, with the oldest roughly 15 years old and at 116,000 miles.

He said the plan is to replace it and rotate all three to extend the life of the remaining two, which are 2005 and 2006 models and have about 50,000 to 60,000 miles each.

The new ambulance would cost about $130,000, he said.

Figley, after first claiming he received a backlash from the most recent council discussion, said he is not out to “attack the fire department,” but didn’t feel spending the money on a new ambulance was necessary.

Two weeks ago during the City Council Finance Committee meeting he questioned why the fire department needed a $400,000 annual budget.

“I was not specifically talking about the fire department. I was talking about the $400,000 the fire department spends,” he said Monday. “I’m not hostile toward the fire department.”

Several times during the meeting he asked Todd to explain the need for the ambulance.

Todd said in the event the other two ambulances are already on a call, the third may be needed but is not always reliable. He said the department relied on the New Waterford department to respond to calls 20 times last year.

Figley questioned the matter of “reliability” and mentioned his own personal vehicle has 271,000 miles and “starts every time I turn the key.”

Mayor Margo Zuch told Figley she witnessed first-hand the department needing the third ambulance earlier that day and it wouldn’t even start.

“If your car doesn’t start you don’t have somewhere to go, but if an ambulance doesn’t start they have someone waiting for them,” she said.

Figley suggested the department alert the Negley and New Waterford departments to be on stand-by if the local department already has the two ambulances in service and a new call comes in, but a member of the East Palestine department replied Negley and New Waterford are not on-call departments.

The village has mutual aid contracts with those departments, and those contracts assist with equipment needs.

But Todd isn’t pleased with the New Waterford ambulances.

“They bought cheaper ambulances the last time they bought ambulances, and we have not been satisfied,” he said.

He and Village Manager Pete Monteleone explained they are looking into the new ambulance being paid for using capital improvement money available, not fire levy funding.

Voters approved a 1.5-mil, five-year levy in 2009 that generates $78,000 a year for the department.

Finance Director Traci Thompson said an ambulance could be purchased using the levy money, but Todd is also wanting to buy a new brush truck that is estimated to cost $150,000.

She added a levy renewal is slated for the November ballot, and funding has historically been put toward new fire trucks. A renewal does not result in a cost increase for tax payers.

Monteleone explained the capital improvement money targeted for the new ambulances would come from the pay off of a State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) loan in 2015.

The village is paying $98,000 a year on the loan.

Councilman Don Elzer asked if money targeted for a new ambulance could be used to pay EMTs instead, but Monteleone said capital improvement money cannot be put toward personnel.

Elzer argued a new ambulance won’t be worthwhile if there aren’t enough emergency responders available to take the additional call.

He said he believes more people would be attracted to being EMTs if they were paid better.

The department’s basic and advanced EMTs and paramedics work on a volunteer on-call basis.

Todd explained the EMTs and paramedics work 12-hour shifts, with two hours stand-by payment guaranteed if no calls come in. However, if calls do come in, the stand-by payment goes away and they are only paid for the hours they are on the calls.

He added recruitment and retention isn’t just about the money. In most cases, people have jobs and can’t dedicate the time. In other cases, people find they can’t deal with the emotional side effects.

Council later approved the estimated 2014 budget, with no changes to the fire department’s allocation. The budget is only an appropriation at this time and will not be finalized until later this year.