Private or fire-based ambulance services? It's a hot issue

2013-03-10T22:47:00Z 2013-07-26T15:52:04Z Private or fire-based ambulance services? It's a hot issueDeborah Laverty deborah.laverty@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2223 nwitimes.com

Merrillville turned its emergency medical services over to a private ambulance company in 2008 as a way to cut costs, Merrillville Fire Chief Ed Yerga said.

Now, nearly five years later and with the addition last year of 14 full-time firefighters, Yerga is considering moving to a cross-trained ambulance crew staffed by firefighters.

"I'm still in the research stage but, personally, I think public service belongs with the community. That's what people pay their taxes for and I believe they are entitled to receive those services," Yerga said.

A year ago, East Chicago turned its emergency medical services over to Prompt, a private ambulance company, East Chicago Fire Chief Emiliano Perez said.

The move has been a deemed a success by officials despite bitterness at the time by some emergency medical services positions lost.

"Every community has to judge for itself...It was a good move. It was certainly cost-effective," Perez said.

The question of whether to go with fire-based emergency medical services, retain a private ambulance company or use hospital--based services is an issue area communities have wrestled with in recent years.

Hobart officials earlier this year met with Superior and Prompt, private ambulance companies, to consider a possible move away from fire-based services and toward privatization as a way to reduce costs.

Bob Fulton, who Mayor Brian Snedecor appointed to team up with Hobart Fire Chief Brian Taylor, is looking at ways the Fire Department can cut costs given the property tax levy freeze and a bleak economic future.

"We assume there is only one model to follow as far as EMS services, but there are probably six different models...There continues to be a need to look at the tax dollars we have and make the best use of them," Fulton said.

In Porter County, the trend has been toward fire-based ambulance services, according to Scott Arnold, who serves as Valparaiso's assistant chief of EMS.

Valparaiso operates three advanced life support ambulances with cross-trained firefighters and also runs an advanced life support engine.

The fire-based service was started on Sept. 1, 2007, Arnold said.

Prior to that date, Porter hospital's EMS handled all ambulance calls in Porter County except for South Haven, Portage and Lakes of the Four Seasons.

"It was a no brainer. ...For us we were already going on the calls and the only way to grow our department was to take on the ambulance service. It allowed us to bring money back into the city," Arnold said. 

No Porter County communities are currently using a private ambulance company for emergency services, Arnold said.

"We're not sinking; we're covering our expenses," Arnold said.

Chesterton is strongly considering the move toward a fire-based ambulance service later this year, Fire Chief Mike Orlich said.

Chesterton's emergency medical services are handled by Porter Regional Hospital, Orlich said.

"We're reviewing the feasibility study and are looking at our funding options...We are hoping to provide our citizens with advanced life support services through the fire department," Orlich said.

The Burns Harbor Fire Department kicked off its advanced life support ambulance services at the start of the year, Burns Harbor Fire Chief Bill Arney said.

The department operates two ambulances on a 24-hour basis with part-timers who are cross-trained.

Burns Harbor had used the ambulance services of Porter Regional Hospital.

"But they have their hands full and we're the farthest north, so several times we had a huge delay for patient response....We can be at a resident's door within five minutes," Arney said.

Gary Miller, the CEO of Prompt, said his ambulances handle services in Highland, Dyer, Griffith, Munster, Merrillville, East Chicago and Calumet Township.

Miller said primarily there are no differences in the type of services his company provides when compared to a fire department-based service.

"The benefit is it's usually a cost savings primarily because the economy is a scale," Miller said.

For instance, Prompt is buying 20 ambulances while a community is only buying one.

Miller said communities, particularly those in Lake County without the 1 percent personal income tax, are looking at ways to improve their budgets.

"And this is one way they can save money," Miller said.

Schererville Fire Chief Joseph Kruzan and Tom Castle, president of Hobart's Professional Firefighters Local 1641 union, say the national trend is toward fire-based ambulance services.*

"When you have a problem who do you call? 911. What a better marriage than the fire department and EMS," Kruzan said.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.

Correction: A story in some Monday editions misidentified Schererville Fire Chief Joseph Kruzan.

The Times regrets the error.

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