PORTSMOUTH – Last month, the Portsmouth Fire Department asked City Council and City Manager Sam Sutherland for approval to hire three new firefighters due to staffing shortages. Both Council and Sutherland have been resistant to the idea thus far.
Since 2017, the Portsmouth Fire Department has also been taking EMS calls within City limits. This has caused their call volume to skyrocket in recent months – to a point where current staff members are racking up overtime.
“We had 448 calls last month,” said Bryan Hicks, the Portsmouth Firefighter’s Union president. “That’s a record for our department. And I don’t see that volume going down. We are trying to help all the citizens we can, but our calls are becoming more frequent.”
Portsmouth Firefighter’s Union Secretary-Treasurer Eric Grimm also spoke out during Monday night’s City Council Meeting.
“I’m concerned for the health and safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect,” said Grimm. “I’m concerned for the physical and mental strain being placed on our firefighters with the increasing call volume. And above all, I’m concerned that our cries for help are falling on deaf ears.”
Sutherland responded by stating three additional firefighters would ultimately cost the city $367,000 per year. That additional expense could negatively impact the city’s financial status with the State of Ohio.
“We have been on fiscal watch with the State since 2012,” said Sutherland. “I understand what the fire department is saying. I get it. But we must get out of fiscal watch…We need to be diligent and get out of this situation. I know that is not an answer anyone wants to hear.”
According to Sutherland, the state may elevate the city’s status from fiscal watch to fiscal emergency if nothing is done soon – which would mean a loss of some autonomy and self governance.
“We would receive 85% of our budget. The state would spend the rest however they want to get us out of this problem,” Sutherland explained.
The City Manager then suggested that Portsmouth Ambulance, a private company that provided the City with EMS service until 2017, could step and take some of the excess of calls from the fire department. This private-public partnership would see a rotation of calls between the two entities.
“It’s up to the council to decide what model you want,” said Michael Adkins, CEO of Portsmouth Ambulance. “Fire based EMS is a great model. But, as you can see, they are having trouble. Expanding that model is difficult. But if council wants to provide us with the additional volume, we’d be more than happy to set trucks aside and help relieve some of the strain on the Fire Department.”
“When there were multiple ambulance services in Portsmouth, the calls were rotated and there was never an issue with availability,” added Adkins.
The cost of such an arrangement is still up in the air. But Sutherland promised to meet with both Fire Chief Bill Raison and Adkins at a later date to discuss the possibilities. Council seemed to be supportive of the potential private-public hybrid EMS model.
“As we really try hard to move out of fiscal watch, we could have one model. In 12 months, we could do something else,” said 2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon. “This doesn’t have to be a forever marriage. It could just be a stopgap while we are getting out of fiscal watch.”
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