Plan Offered to Bolster Paramedics : Services: Fire chief proposes that private firms be hired to handle non-emergency medical calls. Goals include saving money and reducing ambulance response time.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To free paramedic units for more urgent needs, Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning proposed a plan Tuesday to hire private firms--and perhaps use trained volunteers--to handle non-emergency calls.

Battalion Chief Roger Gillis, the department's community liaison officer, said the department estimated it could save $6 million in the first year and about $2.8 million in succeeding years.

"Any time we take away or remove a service, we're not happy about it," Gillis said. "The other side of that is that what we're hoping to offer is a quicker,better, faster service to calls we know are emergencies."

Manning outlined the proposal Tuesday to the Board of Fire Commissioners, Gillis said. A written proposal will be submitted to the board within 30 days, he said.

The proposal was developed at the direction of the office of Mayor Richard Riordan, who campaigned on a platform of contracting out some city services to private companies to increase efficiency.

The savings would immediately place 78 firefighters--now assigned to lower-echelon emergency medical service--back on fire engines and decrease response times for the 52 remaining ambulance units staffed by qualified paramedics, he said.

About 60,000 of the department's 317,000 calls last year were for non-emergency complaints such as "stubbed toes, stomachaches, even broken limbs," which could be handled by private ambulance companies, Gillis said.

If the plan is adopted, paramedics or firefighters with emergency medical-technician training would be dispatched whenever the nature of the injuries is unclear, Gillis said.

Currently the average response time for a Fire Department emergency medical vehicle is 4 1/2 to 6 minutes, Gillis said, acknowledging that service to mountainous or outlying areas takes longer.

There also have been informal discussions among department administrators of training resident volunteers in large apartment complexes to assist in non-emergency calls, Gillis said.

The proposal, based on a pilot program using private ambulance companies, was tested in the San Fernando Valley between January and August, 1991.

One of the concerns raised by Gillis is identifying private ambulance companies that could promise response times comparable to those required by the Fire Department. Another sticking point may be that private companies may not be eager to service poor areas of the city, where bills for emergency services often are not paid, Gillis said.

The plan is made necessary by dwindling department resources since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1979, which cut property tax revenue to municipalities across the state, Gillis said. Since then, fire calls have doubled but the number of firefighters has increased only 17.8%, he said.

Manning's comments were made at a regular meeting of the five-member Board of Fire Commissioners. David W. Fleming, vice president of the commission, said he favors exploring the idea.

"I know the mayor wants to raise both police and fire salaries next year, and that would free up some dollars to do that," Fleming said.

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