Austin’s new budget includes a significant investment in EMS

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The budget Austin City Council approved on Aug. 23 for the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year comes with a number of different investments in Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

Much of the discussion around Austin’s new budget revolved around the ways the budget begins a process of transitioning around $150 million dollars from the Austin Police Department into other areas of public health and safety over the course of the next year.

But the budget encompasses many areas outside of policing. While funding for medics may not have been the topic most residents weighed in on during public comment, the dollars set aside for ATCEMS represent another key theme in this budget.

Jasper Brown, the Chief of Staff for ATCEMS, said that based on his 23 years of experience working with the department, ATCEMS can have good years and bad years when it comes to how well the approved budget meets the needs the department has expressed.

Brown recognizes his is one of many departments making the case for more dollars to the city.

“But, of course, being EMS we feel that our needs are very important, we are pleased that the council and manager funded what they did this year,” he said.

Changes for ATCEMS

Items in the FY21 budget which impact ATCEMS included:

  • 3 new 24-hour new ambulances
  • 67 new sworn personnel (including 14 community health paramedics)
  • Funding for administrative positions
  • Funding to continue the COVID-19 Clinical Consult Line
  • A switch to shifts for most medics of 24 hours on, 72 hours off

“We definitely knew we needed to add more resources to the system,” Brown said.

In a July 22 memo, EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez acknowledged that ATCMS was dealing with a recent increase in call volume, as well as COVID-19 decontamination protocols which add to the time needed to respond to those calls.

Brown also noted that the department has been falling short on its internal goal to make 90% of its highest priority calls in less than 10 minutes.

He expects that with the new ambulances to be added over the next year, “we think we’ll be able to see a measured improvement in our response time, especially in our highest priority calls.”

Ambulances

Brown explained that in the budget initially proposed by City Manager Spencer Cronk, one additional ambulance would have been allocated to the department for the Travis Country area.

An amendment from Austin City Council, later on, added two more ambulances plus the necessary staffing.

That amendment was sponsored by Austin City Council Member Alison Alter. Alter noted that the amendment also added additional staff for the paramedic consult line in addition to specialists and support staff.

“So in total, that is 2 ambulances and 46 medics and support staff for EMS along with the equipment needed to do that, which is going to be super important for our COVID response and keeping our community healthy and safe,” she said of that amendment from the council.

In the future, as the department grows, Brown says the department will be looking to add other vehicles to their fleet that are not ambulances to help more efficiently respond to calls that may not require medical transport.

Chief Medical Officer

Another amendment Alter sponsored would transition the city to having an office of a Chief Medical Officer within the city. Currently, the city’s office of the Medical Director offers clinical oversight for EMS. Alter explained that her amendment would extend the medical director’s oversight across the city and increase resources to improve physician access.

This would open up possibilities for medics to offer patients a video call with a doctor via telehealth, something that could potentially get the patient more personalized care and could help the patient avoid an unnecessary trip to the emergency room.

“This is providing additional oversight, oversight that the Travis County Medical Society has asked for, for many years,” Alter said, “but it also gives us capabilities to provide physician and physician assistant access to our communities.”

“So we can get people better healthcare, so we don’t always have to always rely on going to the emergency room, transporting folks by ambulance, which is costly all the way around,” she continued.

Brown explained that medics already can confer with physicians over the phone when they’re responding to a call, but he noted that adding the element of video calls may provide additional help.

“Over the phone you don’t get the full picture a lot of times, so this really adds to the tool box of our medics,” Brown said.

He expects this video chat option to take a little longer than some of the other budgetary changes to roll out.

Reimagining Public Safety

In the wake of protests against police brutality and continued public comment asking City of Austin leaders for police reform, Austin’s city manager and council members committed over the past few months to “reimagining public safety.” That vision aims to rethink the ways the city responds to and prevents public safety incidents.

Of the $20 million dollars moved approved to be immediately reallocated from the Austin Police Department budget to other areas of public health and safety, Austin City Council directed around $4 million of those dollars to go toward ATCEMS’ COVID-19 response. Another amount totaling to nearly $1 million from APD’s budget would go towards Community Health Paramedic positions to help respond to mental health calls.

Council Member Alter said she “absolutely” sees the significant investments this budget made in EMS as part of the city’s “reimagining public safety” effort.

“If we’re going to reimagine public safety, it’s not just a conversation about police, it’s also a conversation about EMS and fire and it’s also a conversation about the various ways in which we prevent the need to have a response from any of those organizations,” she said.

In regards to how the city responds to calls, Brown said, “I really think it’s a team effort, there are calls that could probably utilize a different resource than any of our public safety agencies — even our community health paramedics could definitely use an alternate response.”

He noted that all of Austin’s public safety agencies work together and that there are certain types of calls, like if a person at a scene is armed with a weapon, where the ATCEMS would need police to be present in order to respond.

“All the public safety agencies are kind of the safety net when all else fails and nobody else will respond,” Brown said.

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