Agreement worries ambulance crew

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— A new agreement between the city and the rural fire district, say some worried ambulance workers, may be putting their jobs in jeopardy.

Currently, the city covers fire protection for the surrounding rural district, and the district provides ambulance services for the city.

Through the new agreement, the city would provide all of the manpower for fire and ambulance services while the district comes up with a portion of the funding.

The city, which would control all personnel for both the fire and ambulance departments for the city and the surrounding rural district, has made it clear in a draft of the agreement that no one will lose his or her job when the agreement takes effect Jan. 1, 2002. But some EMS professionals are still worried about their job prospects.

"We're very concerned about our future," Smokey Slaven, a full-time ambulance worker, said at the City Council meeting Tuesday night.

Slaven is one of three full-time ambulance workers at Steamboat Springs Ambulance. The ambulance crew currently works for the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District.

The agreement, scheduled to be finalized Tuesday and signed by City Council President Kevin Bennett, has been postponed until Jan. 9 to finalize some provisions regarding the Uniform Fire Code and the tax base.

The city, said City Manager Paul Hughes, is planning on hiring 10 new cross-trained firefighter/EMS professionals under the agreement.

That provision, said some ambulance crew members, could put their jobs in jeopardy if they are not cross-trained.

"When that agreement is signed, we'll have been given away without any guarantees about our jobs in the future," said part-time EMS professional Matt Newman.

"We've been totally left in the dark."

Newman said he is also concerned the city will have to fund the ambulance services out of its sales tax-financed general fund, which may mean the ambulance crew will be left without a more dedicated source of income like a property tax.

But the city is offering to cross-train any members of the ambulance and fire departments, Hughes said.

After Slaven and Newman voiced their concerns to council Tuesday, council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell directed Hughes to inform the ambulance crew of the city's intentions regarding the agreement.

"Uncertainty is not a way to treat people who have treated us so well, risking their lives in some cases," Connell said.

Hughes said he has attempted to talk to members of the ambulance crew but feels it is more appropriate for them to talk to officials from the rural district. The city, he added, likely will always have a need for the type of EMS personnel now working for the ambulance service. He did say, however, that the city may make a gradual transition to more highly trained full-time professionals after the agreement takes effect.

The city is bringing in the new cross-trained personnel to make the departments more efficient and faster in responding to emergencies, Hughes said.

Ambulance Director Mel Stewart also stressed the importance of quick response times. Although the ambulance service responds to calls at all hours of the day and night, the crew has to respond from home after normal business hours, Stewart said. The new department would have people at the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

"Response times are good now, but there's always room for improvement," he said.

He also said the new department would likely have a number of stations from which to deploy emergency professionals and could thus be closer to calls.

Stewart said he has been attempting to explain the new role of the EMS professionals to his staff, but until the agreement is finalized and he is brought entirely up to speed, he cannot be sure what will happen in the long-term.

"As we formulate the plan, we will tell what we know to the crew," he said.

The rural district, which encompasses 428 square miles of property surrounding Steamboat Springs, will be drawing on funds from a ballot issue passed this November to pay the city for both ambulance and firefighting services.

The approximately 3,000 residents of the rural fire protection district voted in November to increase their property taxes to fund the district's operating expenses and a bond for a new fire station and equipment. The pair of referenda passed by a near two-to-one margin, with the fire station proving slightly more contentious. Before the vote, city officials had warned the district that without the financial assistance those referenda provided, the city would not be able to stay in the mutual aid agreement.

Councilman Ken Brenner, who met with the district and city officials when they were drawing up the agreement, said he understands the concerns of the ambulance crew.

"The goal for the long-term is to have these cross-trained employees," Brenner said. "The problem in the short-term is that we have these dedicated staff that may not fit that definition."

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