City Fire Department's future is hot topic

It's early in 2013, but an alarm is already sounding at City Hall.

As in every emergency, this one provides an opportunity for officials to show the strength of their character.

For the city of Las Vegas, the challenge is substantial: how to deliver the best emergency medical service while simultaneously controlling costs.

It's not just a question of budget and policy. The will of politicians and the priorities of taxpayers also play roles in the debate.

To help better understand the dynamics of the Las Vegas Fire Department and its impact on the community, last year the city funded a study from the International City/County Management Association. Representatives of the management-focused group are scheduled to discuss their report at Wednesday's City Council meeting.

Skeptics suggest the report has been generated to help provide political cover for the city to cut the Fire Department's budget.

A team of ICMA analysts listed 23 recommendations to improve efficiency, and Fire Department Chief Mike Myers tells me his outfit has already adjusted its policies and procedures to reflect some of those new ideas.

Of the report's remaining eight key areas, the one that the community should pay particular attention to concerns the future of EMS transport. The ICMA study suggests the Fire Department should either handle all future patient transport, or find a way to get out of the business entirely.

Under its current arrangement, Fire Department emergency responders roll on every call, then often transfer patient care to AMR ambulance attendants, who deliver those patients to hospitals for a fee.

The system works, but in challenging economic times it flatly makes better fiscal sense to increase the department's role in the process and allow its experts to handle all or most patient transport. Not only can it recoup millions in costs, which will help its bottom-line operating outlay, but I'd argue the taxpayers will also receive more bang for their buck.

Las Vegas officials need look no farther than Henderson to find a professional fire department that handles all EMS transports.

Not surprisingly, IAFF union Local 1285 President Scott Johnson says his members are up for the task. Johnson and longtime union President Dean Fletcher are focused on ensuring the public and the politicians know the department can improve efficiency and save money by increasing its transport duties. And their projected savings are impressive.

"If the council wants to expand these services, we'll do it hand in hand," Johnson says. "Our message is, 'If you want us to do this, we're with you.' "

There's no doubt that the Fire Department has achieved a high level of emergency service. Its ISO Class 1 rating places it among the top departments in the nation, and that directly translates into more lives saved and less property damaged.

But it doesn't come cheap.

Personnel are highly trained and well paid. They work with the best equipment, and before the recession taxpayers approved a strategic expansion of stations that helps enable emergency responders arrive on the scene in a few short minutes.

While Myers is in the difficult position of representing his department, balancing a budget, and working with the City Council and its manager, the union representatives are focused on member protection, job performance, and especially patient outcome.

"You can talk about the private or the public, but our focus is always about how do we deliver better service to our taxpayers?" Johnson says.

They can start by substantially increasing the department's role in patient transport. Officials at AMR, of course, can't be expected to watch silently as their role shrinks.

The answer to any budget crisis won't be as simple as increasing the department's number of emergency transports. Neither will taxpayers be best served by cutting paramedic crews, trimming hours, or closing stations.

With plenty of encouragement from the city's elected officials, not many years ago taxpayers voted to spend the money to create those new stations. Police, fire and emergency services are top priorities for most residents.

In post-boom Las Vegas, all the simple solutions were tried.

This is an emergency, and an opportunity:

Will the city meet this essential challenge?

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at