City may privatize service for ambulances Mayor seeks to cut costs

fire unions protest plan

February 06, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

In a move that has infuriated and frightened emergency medical workers, Baltimore is considering turning over ambulance service to private management.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has instructed the fire chief to explore whether private companies can transport and provide quick emergency medical assistance to patients at a lower cost than the $8 million the city spends each year.

"All I'm doing is studying the issue and gathering information," Schmoke said.

Schmoke said he expects proposals to go out within 30 to 60 days, and a final answer could come 60 days after that.

Hoping to stop the mayor's move, city fire unions are beginning to protest. They say that if ambulance service goes private, city residents will be in danger.

Private employees "are not public employees, and they have the right to strike. What happens then?" said Bill Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Union, Local 734. "It is the worst possible thing [the city] can do."

Union leaders also speculate that the mayor could have ulterior motives for making public his plans to explore the alternative ambulance service. Union leaders say that they are about to enter into contract negotiations with the city at a time when they will likely ask for more money.

"Is this a scare tactic to put us on alert?" Taylor asked. "I don't know."

Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said, "It is not a threat."

Yesterday, Williams met with union officials. Some left the meeting thinking that the mayor's plans had been scuttled.

"I think common sense prevailed in this case, which is rather unusual," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of Local 964, after getting the news of the meeting with Williams.

But Williams said that he was trying to get the point across that privatization was not imminent.

"They were under the impression that we were going to do it today or tomorrow," Williams said.

He said that he has scheduled a trip to San Diego, which has a privatized ambulance service.

"There are several cities in the country trying this. I'm going to look at what has worked and what has failed," Williams said.

For months, firefighters and ambulance workers have been fighting for their share of the city's shrinking budget. Fire stations have been closed to save money and the number of employees for fire and ambulance service has fallen.

Despite a decline in city population, emergency ambulance runs have increased to 118,000 annually from 100,000 since 1989, according to city statistics.

Because ambulances are spread thin, fire engines routinely are dispatched on routine medic calls because they can arrive faster. A city report showed that the ambulance response time increased from 5.3 minutes to 5.5 minutes.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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