The divide in North Las Vegas's City Council chambers Wednesday evening was color-coded: firefighters wore yellow, MedicWest employees wore red.
That separation was painful, many said, like breaking up a team.
"It's hard to look at the yellow shirts and see we're wearing different uniforms," MedicWest paramedic Rebecca Carmody said. "It's heartbreaking to see us on different sides of the table."
MedicWest recently has been at cross purposes with the North Las Vegas Fire Department over the department's proposal to take over the transport of more emergency patients to hospitals instead of turning them over to private ambulance services. The department says the move would generate enough revenue to save the jobs of up to 16 firefighters who might otherwise be laid off because of the city's budget troubles.
But officials with MedicWest have said that they will have to lay off at least a dozen workers if the change is implemented and that it's unfair to sacrifice private-sector jobs in favor of public-sector employees.
Hundreds of supporters for both packed the chambers where council members had scheduled a special meeting to discuss the issue.
But after more than an hourlong public hearing that included passionate arguments from both sides, the council chose to continue the matter for two weeks so it could gather more information and give the parties a chance to work out a compromise.
"I'd just as soon withdraw it and come back when the two sides have cooler heads and are thinking clearly," Councilman Robert Eliason said.
Mayor Shari Buck cast the lone vote against continuing the item.
"I think we have everybody in the room tonight to move this forward," she said.
Most emergency ambulance calls in North Las Vegas are handled by MedicWest and American Medical Response, both of which are owned by the same parent company, Colorado-based Emergency Medical Services Corp.
The Fire Department would like to assume emergency transport services for all 911 "delta level" patients -- the most seriously sick or injured -- and all traffic accident patients in the city. The department could bill insurance companies for the service.
Fire Chief Al Gillespie estimated the department would go from transporting about 25 patients each month to 375. That would net about $1.6 million a year for the city, he said.
The cost to the department for taking over the calls would be minimal, Gillespie said, because the department already responds to 911 emergency calls. It simply would stop "handing them (patients) off to someone else."
"We already have the resources in place," he said.
AMR and MedicWest handle about 80 percent of emergency transports in Las Vegas, said John Wilson, local general manager of the private ambulance services. Henderson's fire department handles nearly all of its own emergency transports.
It's a system that works well for the city, said Dan Pentkowski, president of Henderson Professional Firefighters Local 1883.
Firefighters offer faster response times than private ambulance services, Pentkowski said. And providing its own emergency transports generated $4.5 million in revenue for the city last year, he said.
But representatives from the business community said the public sector should not be competing with the private sector for jobs.
"The government should only do what the private sector cannot or will not do," said Sharon Powers, president of the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.
The council was scheduled to discuss other options, including allowing the Fire Department to start transporting all 911 patients in the city or canceling the existing private ambulance provider's franchise agreement and establishing a competitive bidding process for transport services. But council members said neither of those options would be considered.
North Las Vegas, which has undergone five rounds of budget cuts since December 2008, must trim an additional $33.4 million to make it through fiscal year 2011. The city announced this month it might have to cut up to 273 positions, 21 of them from the Fire Department.
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@review journal.com or 702-383-0285.