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Lodi fire chief to take plan for paramedics to council next week

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Posted: Friday, September 13, 2002 10:00 pm

It may rest with the citizens of Lodi to help make the fire department's new paramedic plan pay for itself.

That is the only real change to Lodi Fire Chief Michael Pretz' paramedic plan. He is scheduled to bring it before the City Council on Wednesday for approval.

Pretz, who has been working for more than a year on a plan to buy ambulances and staff them with firefighters trained as paramedics, took pieces from other cities' plans and made his own.

"What we know people are doing already works," Pretz said.

He is proposing the city initially buy one ambulance and hire six paramedics and train them as firefighters with the hopes of improving response times.

Opponents claim that private ambulance service is already doing a good job and allowing a public agency to provide emergency transportation could put private providers out of business.

Residents who now dial 911 receive the services of a fire engine staffed with three or four firefighters and an American Medical Response ambulance staffed with at least one paramedic. Firefighters are trained only as emergency medical technicians, and can not administer life-saving drugs.

The council, which requested in July that Pretz prepare a business plan, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at Wednesday's meeting.

New to the plan since Pretz last discussed it with council members is the optional annual fee. It is based on a successful program in Huntington Beach, he said.

Think of it as insurance. The less-than-$50-a-year elective subscription fee would be offered to residents. In case of an emergency, there would be no out-of-pocket expense for an ambulance ride.

The average cost of the transportation, depending on care given, is $577, of which $384 is usually paid by the insurance company, Pretz said.

The voluntary subscription fee, which he estimated at $36 per household per year, would help pay for annual operation costs. He estimates roughly 30 percent of residents would subscribe to the service including the elderly, people with ailments and those who have experienced the costs of taking a child or themselves to the hospital by ambulance.

"There are those people who will use it," Pretz said, adding that he has studied other city plans where the practice is successful.

Projected figures are estimated at roughly $15,000 per year. Collections will go directly into the department's fund to help off-set operation costs.

According to the fire chief, an average ambulance ride costs $577 in San Joaquin County. Most insurance companies reimburse less than $400, he said.

AMR officials could not be reached for comment.

The business plan also projects financial figures for operation during the next three years.

While Pretz has helped put together similar programs in previous departments including one in Washington, he has never started one without formal direction.

If approved, Lodi ambulances could end up responding to emergencies north of Eight Mile Road, within the county. The western boundary would be Rio Vista with the eastern boundary at the Calaveras County line.

"That's the way the state and the county system is set up," Pretz said, adding that the county emergency dispatch system will send the closest ambulance to a call, whether it is staffed by Lodi firefighters or a private company such as AMR.

It is the same program the Stockton Fire Department launched last week.

In Lodi, the year-one costs, include about $500,000 for personnel and about $130,000 for capital costs, including the purchase of one fully equipped ambulance, , according to Pretz' business plan. The figures were still being completed Friday.

An additional nine personnel will need to be hired in years two and three, as will an in-house billing services department, according to the business plan. A clerk is estimated to cost about $45,000 per year.

There are currently 44 firefighters in the department.

A second and third ambulance will also be purchased in years two and three.

Like Stockton, the firefighter-paramedics staffing the ambulances will have their fire-fighting gear on board. The apparatus would be housed in city fire stations when not in service.

Pretz has also figured the daily average number of calls into his plan.

Within the zone set by the county, there are roughly a dozen 9-1-1 calls per day, eight within city limits and four outside, Pretz said. That includes calls for car accidents and for medical emergencies.

"It's a worthwhile program," he said. "There seems to be a group of people out there who think it's not an issue of public safety, but off free enterprise."

The Lodi Chamber of Commerce board failed to endorse the paramedic plan for fear of removing free enterprise. President Pat Patrick could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

But Pretz maintains his plan only enhances the level of service by offering stability to the entire emergency-response system.

He plans to recruit for the positions the same way firefighters are, except he will recruit paramedics and train them as firefighters. He believes many will be hired from the private sector.

Starting annual base pay would be $51,169, not including costs for benefits and uniforms.

In other action Wednesday, the City Council is expected to:

- Hold a public hearing to consider a technical equipment purchase proposal for the local law enforcement block grant program.

- Appropriate an additional $15,200 for costs associated with providing temporary office facilities, unforeseen incidentals and handicapped access for the current Animal Shelter.

- Adopt an ordinance repealing the July adoption of the redevelopment project No. 1.

The City Council meets at 7 p.m. every first and third Wednesday of the month in Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St. For more information, contact the City Clerk's Office at 333-6702.

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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