New London Fire Department changes policy on medical calls

New London — Up until today, if the fire department responded to 13 medical calls such as difficulty breathing or a seizure, a fire engine would typically accompany the ambulance to the scene.

But in a cost-saving effort that begins this morning, the 12-year-old policy has been revised, with only an ambulance responding to such emergency medical service calls, a move which the mayor’s office says will result in a 45 percent reduction in the number of calls in which firetrucks accompany ambulances.

The change came after a review conducted last month by Fire Chief Ron Samul and Deputy Chief Henry Kydd of “how fire vehicles are utilized in response calls and to make recommendations for possible changes,” Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said in a press release Thursday.

“Today’s order represents the beginning of an ongoing procedural review to ensure that the fire department is maximizing efficiency and cost effectiveness,” Samul said. “This is an ongoing effort begun by the administration to address the department’s, and the city’s, fiscal needs.”

But fire union President Rocco Basilica said the change 12 years ago to an engine response to many emergency medical service (EMS) calls came after citizens complained firefighters were “sitting around doing nothing.” Basilica said that as part of the union’s most recent contract, each department member underwent emergency medical technician training so that the first responders, whether they are in an ambulance or not, are trained to that level and can provide adequate care to someone in distress. He said, too, that all fire engines are equipped with defibrillators. The trend nationally among fire departments, Basilica said, has been to include a fire engine in response to many EMS calls.

“Sometimes the information people tell the dispatcher is wrong, so we try to get someone there as quick as possible to assess the situation and scale up or down the response,” Basilica said. “If it’s your loved one in danger, do you want someone there right away? We’re in the business of saving lives.”

In a memo dated Thursday, Samul wrote to all fire personnel that only an ambulance will respond to all EMS calls, with the exception of “cardiac issues, burn victims, unconscious patients, drug overdose victims, and electrocutions.” In those cases, a fire engine will respond, as in the past.

The memo said battalion chiefs will monitor calls and respond as necessary based on the nature of the call. Ambulances, too, may request additional first responders, the memo said, if additional assistance is needed.

“This change saves city resources, enhances departmental efficiency, while continuing to provide quality service and ensure public safety,” Finizio said. “The wear and tear on our fire engines, and the fuel costs incurred, could not be justified by any public safety requirements when other methods of providing service are available.”

The Old Mystic Fire Department, which uses a separate entity for ambulance service, sends along an engine and its “R-1” truck, an outfitted Ford F-350, on every medical call but the most routine, said Chief Ken Richards Jr. They won’t go out for something like a minor cut or an ambulance transfer, Richards said, but an engine will respond when someone has difficulty breathing.

“Most departments in the Groton/Stonington area send an engine to back up the ambulance,” Richards said. “It’s nice to have the extra couple hands there.”

Finizio said the change does not need union approval because it is an administrative, not contractual, change. Basilica, though, said he would review the memorandum to make certain it doesn’t violate the health and safety portions of the contract. Basilica pledged to work with the administration and give feedback as to effectiveness of the changes.

The change also does not need City Council approval, Finizio said, because there are no new expenditures. Rather, he said it will provide “demonstrable savings” to the city and is the first of many changes in decades-old standard operating procedure the department will implement. Finizio said an actual cost savings cannot be calculated until the change has been in place for some months.

“There will be some more changes to continue to maximize this efficiency,” Finizio said. “These are life and death situations, so we won’t make wholesale changes until each change has been wholly vetted. This is the first step in an ongoing process.”

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