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Fire district board places fifth ambulance back in service


February 23, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

The fifth ambulance of the Mehlville Fire Protection District again is operational on a daily basis after a nearly two-and-a-half year hiatus because of budget constraints.

Citing the Feb. 15 closing of the No. 1 Engine House at 7409 S. Lindbergh Blvd., the district's Board of Directors voted unanimously last week to pay overtime to staff the fifth ambulance from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every day.

"That's the time of day about 75 percent of our calls come in," Assistant Chief EMS Phil Minnella told the Call. "So we'll man it (the fifth ambulance) for half a day."

The ambulance will dispatch from the No. 5 Engine House, 11020 Mueller Road, for emergencies that would have been covered by the No. 1 Engine House — north and south from Reavis Barracks Road to Mattis Road and east and west from the Mississippi River to Interstate 55.

The Missouri Department of Transportation purchased the No. 1 Engine House for about $1 million to make way for lane expansions at the intersection of Lemay Ferry Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard. The district's Board of Directors late last year awarded a nearly $1.1 million contract to Hof Construction Inc. to serve as general contractor for the construction of a new No. 1 Engine House on Dovedale Lane on the west side of Lemay Ferry across from Mehlville Senior High School.

"We closed our No. 1 Engine House and that left a large void in the Lemay-Lindbergh area when we moved our ambulance from the No. 1 House to the No. 7 House (5501 Old Lemay Ferry Road)," Minnella told the Call. "We receive a lot of calls from that area and now we'll be able to address them in a reasonable manner."

The district will pay roughly $91,000 for two overtime personnel to operate the ambulance through July 1, when four paramedics are expected to be hired, Minnella told the Call.

Amid a budget crunch, the board elected in August 2002 to shut down the fifth ambulance when overtime was needed to staff it. The district has been down four paramedics since that time, Minnella said, so the ambulance only was operational "usually about eight days a month. It was sporadic when the personnel was available."

Meanwhile, the fire district actually budgeted roughly $240,000 in fiscal 2005 for the four paramedics who won't be hired until July, depending on board action and a recommendation from a hiring committee of union firefighters and management personnel.

"So I must reiterate," Minnella said, "We will spend $91,000 but we have budgeted $120,000 through July 1. That ($91,000 expense) is offset by the number of new hires we have not hired but have included in the budget."

Mehlville also is short an EMS supervisor for the district.

Greg Harwood, former deputy chief for emergency medical services, resigned after being charged in July with six counts of stealing a controlled substance and one count of possessing a controlled substance.

Harwood, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration documentation, "... ordered substantially more morphine from St. Anthony's (Medical Center) than he reported ordering to MFPD. Arrested and Mirandized, defendant admitted to complainant stealing morphine from MFPD in each of these six months and trying to cover up the thefts by falsifying paperwork and by filling morphine vials that he had used with normal saline solution and putting the bogus vials in the controlled substance storage cabinet or on the ambulances."

Harwood's former position still is budgeted, but Minnella wouldn't say what district officials would recommend the board do to fill that position. Currently, Minnella is assuming those responsibilities.

"I've been wearing two hats," he said. "There will be several (committee) recommendations on that supervisory position, but I don't think I can talk about what I think is going on until the board receives information on that," he said. "But the four paramedic positions will be the key."

Harwood was paid "well over $100,000 with benefits," Chief Ray Haddock told the Call.

Re-staffing the ambulance was one of several recommendations of the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services, or FACTS, a panel of nearly 100 district residents.

In November, voters approved a 33-cent tax increase to fund the five-year district improvement plan recommended by FACTS, including re-staffing the fifth ambulance.

If the board adopts the full 33-cent increase in August, the district's tax rate would jump roughly 36 percent to $1.23 per $100 equalized assessed valuation.

District officials can account for that money now, allowing them to budget the fifth ambulance. Because Mehlville receives tax disbursements in November and December after the board sets its tax rate in August, the district can budget for those disbursements now, Haddock said.

Comptroller Jeff Geisler did not know exactly how much the tax increase would generate this year, but said the full 33-cent tax-rate increase was used to formulate the fiscal 2005 budget.

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