Call to restore ambulance funding as response times increase

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Paramedic and firefighter unions are asking Travis County to reverse a decision they say is preventing ambulances from reaching patients faster. 

It follows a KXAN investigation examining delayed response times with diverted resources in the Pedernales community. 

First responders say it's a symptom of a larger problem. 

In a described "joint collaboration, beyond geographical or political lines, to call to prioritize public safety," the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association and Lake Travis Fire Fighters addressed the impact of those funding cuts and how it's created a "fragmented" EMS system.

In a news release, association president Tony Marquardt said, “Citizens served by Austin Travis County EMS benefit from experienced fire based credentialed providers arriving quickly to determine patient acuity. However, the majority of life-threatening medical emergencies (heart attack, strokes, and trauma) require both immediate recognition and rapid ambulance transport. Decreases in EMS funding negatively impact the patient’s chance for a positive outcome when critically sick or injured.”

Another statement from the same news release was from ESD 12 Fire Chief Ryan Smith, who said, “As a Fire Chief, I see first-hand the impact of funding cuts to ATCEMS. Travis County citizens need more funding and more ambulances now, not less. This must be a public safety priority for the County.”

Lake Travis Fire Fighters Association President Braden Frame said they're asking county leaders to restore funding, "a little over $2 million."

Frame said the association was told even with a loss in county funding, everything would be fine. But he says – it’s not. 

"That's proved not to be the case. Month after month that has proven to be a failed plan,” Frame said on Wednesday. 

Last year, Travis County cut funding for 2.5 ambulances, meaning two 24-hour ambulances and one that was bumped down to 12-hour coverage.  

"The unfortunate issue is it wasn't based on a public safety need, it seemed to be a mission of scaling back expenditures without addressing what would be lost moving forward,” Marquardt said. 

One example of the shuffle of resources, is an ambulance that used to be housed in Bee Cave. Because the Austin Parks and Recreation facility where it was housed was no longer in a condition that made that possible, rather than move to another location in Bee Cave, that ambulance is now housed in a fire station in Oak Hill.  

"When the ambulance for Lake Travis was moved out of Bee Cave, we saw delays in Lakeway, in Hudson Bend, in Steiner Ranch, our colleagues in Pedernales saw delays in Spicewood and Briarcliff and we saw increasing issues with providing care obviously in the city of Bee Cave,” Frame said. 

But Frame and Marquardt want to be clear.  This is about more than just moving one or two ambulances. It’s about the effect on everyone, they say. And decisions from the top. 

"It's a cut from anywhere across the county that's going to ripple across and effect every citizen. Regardless of where they live,” Frame said. 

Marquardt said the same. 

“If we are not maintaining our necessary geographic coverage for these 1,100 miles, we are going to miss some critical response times,” he said. "1,100 square miles of coverage, you know, there's a lot that can go wrong." 

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt issued a statement saying: 

“In an open and continual data-driven process of balancing among competing needs, the Travis County Commissioners Court makes investment decisions for the benefit of all Travis County residents. Responsibility for the consequences of those investment decisions rests with the Commissioners Court, not its employees. Travis County has been and will continue to be in partnership with all of the emergency fire and medical service providers in Travis County to assure a unified standard of care for every resident, no matter what corner of the county or which city that resident lives in. In FY 2016 we had 12 emergency medical units deployed throughout Travis County, all of which were operated by the City of Austin. In FY 2017 we had 14, three of which were operated by Emergency Services Districts. Now, in FY 2018, we have 14, five of which are operated by Emergency Services Districts. Overall response times in the service area outside the City of Austin have improved in FY 2018. I will continue to work in partnership with all current and potential providers for effective, efficient and fair fire and emergency medical response county-wide.”

That being said the county executive of emergency services, Josh David, told KXAN multiple times in an interview last month that response times are not where they need to be.

All of this is coming up as the county is in negotiation talks for a new inter-local EMS agreement that will go into effect in October. 

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