Cost-cutting plan sparks concerns in North Las Vegas

It might take a little longer for firefighters valleywide to handle some emergency calls come Sunday.

That’s when North Las Vegas fire stations could start shutting down equipment on a shift-by-shift basis on various days depending on staff availability. It’s a cost-cutting measure known as a “brownout,” a practice of not staffing when a vacancy, such as a vacation or sick leave, occurs in that city’s Fire Department. Affected stations would be prioritized based on location and include No. 54 on Camino Al Norte, No. 50 on Martin Luther King Boulevard and No. 56 by Aliante Station.

But some county officials and firefighters call the North Las Vegas plan a threat to public safety that will go up in flames by delaying response times and increasing the workload for other jurisdictions forced to pick up calls in the financially strapped city.

Others say there is no need to worry: Firefighters and private ambulance companies will still answer fire and medical calls with little effect on how quickly they respond and resources will not be drained in other communities.

NORTH LAS VEGAS PLAN

North Las Vegas City Manager Tim Hacker said the only change will have private ambulance company MedicWest, which has a contract with the city, responding alone to less serious emergency calls, such as stomach pains and broken bones. That city will not send a firetruck to those calls. The county and Las Vegas will not respond to calls North Las Vegas delegates to the private company.

“It’s going to be different,” Hacker said. “Nobody wants to see a change in service delivery in a negative fashion. We want to see improvement. Just like anyone else, we have to live within our means, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Under the franchise agreement, MedicWest pays North Las Vegas to operate in the city.

“Our perspective is: Very little changes as of July 1,” Hacker said. “Our citizens will be fully served with emergency services. I don’t think there will be much change in who is supporting who.”

Of the 30,000 calls the department responds to annually, about 25,000 are medical. About a quarter of those are not life-threatening calls, Hacker said.

“We won’t dedicate resources to that,” he said. “We’ll dedicate resources to more serious calls.”

Hacker said he has met with fire officials in other jurisdictions to work out the less than 10 percent of calls that are structural fires. The closest department will respond, and discussions are still ongoing.

FIREFIGHTERS UNION OBJECTS

Jeff Hurley, president of the North Las Vegas Fire Association, said “because services will be drastically cut, it will rob the county and Las Vegas residents” of their services.

“It affects everyone,” Hurley said. “There is a system that works, and when you start taking pieces out it’s going to collapse. These citizens should be outraged.”

The change comes days before the Fourth of July holiday – the busiest day of fire calls of the year. Last year, the department responded to 143 calls, 26 of which were fires.

There are about 150 employees, which falls short of the 230 a city the size of North Las Vegas should have, according to national standards, Hurley said. As workers take vacations or medical leave, that will determine when those stations are open and what equipment can be used. The minimum staffing level will be 24 firefighters per day, when it used to be 53.

The department has 19 fire apparatus, 16 of which are firetrucks or rescue rigs. Five of them will be out of service permanently as of Sunday. At a bare minimum, firefighters will have seven to work with, Hurley said.

“I don’t know how a city of this size can effectively protect citizens with those kinds of cuts,” Hurley said.

COMMISSIONERS RESPOND

County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, whose district includes some of the affected fire stations, cautioned that public safety is not in jeopardy because of finances.

“Taxpayers are concerned because we don’t want those services pulled away from us,” Weekly said. “What if one of our trucks was servicing (North Las Vegas) residents and we needed them? We’d be upset. But people care about people and want to make sure that folks’ lives are OK. We’re all in tough times right now, and we have to band together. I don’t want to panic.”

Weekly added he does not want to get into the middle of the politics and contract disputes between North Las Vegas public safety unions and city officials, who are snarled in litigation after clashing publicly over a City Council vote to suspend parts of labor contracts to cut costs.

County Commissioner Tom Collins, whose district includes North Las Vegas, said the cost-cutting measure “will put a whole bunch of pressure on Clark County” in the city’s business corridor and at the Cannery, a hotel-casino that draws thousands of visitors annually, located on East Craig Road, a busy valley thoroughfare.

“You really create a potential for a lot of harm to public safety in the valley,” Collins said. “If Las Vegas is running into North Las Vegas, they’re slow to respond. It can jeopardize the folks in Las Vegas. I have concerns for the public safety of my constituents, let alone the financial hardship created to the other two entities.”

In a statement Thursday, Las Vegas Fire Chief Mike Myers said the mutual aid agreements in place will offer the support each jurisdiction needs.

Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas already help each other with calls when asked to do so. That has been operating procedure for decades, and it hasn’t hurt the quality of fire and emergency medical responses by firefighters. But Ryan Beaman, president of the county fire union, said county and Las Vegas fire stations closest to the North Las Vegas border will face the toughest challenge.

County fire stations No. 20, on Judson Avenue, and No. 23, on East Alexander Road, are expected to pick up some calls. Currently, those stations run about 700 calls annually in North Las Vegas.

Beaman said that number could increase to between 2,300 and 5,500 calls a year as a result of the brownouts, but city officials dispute that estimate because of the private ambulance company response.

“If they’re cutting services, we’ll be left to provide it,” Beaman said.

And as units are shifted to cover areas left by firefighters picking up North Las Vegas calls, it will create “a domino effect” that will delay response times, Beaman said.

“We’re strategically placed throughout the valley for a 4-minute response time,” Beaman said. “We’ll still provide services, but citizens are going to be impacted.”

Review-Journal reporter Richard Lake contributed to this report. Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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