2011-06-23 / Front Page

Fire, EMS merger approved

By Phil Zahodiakin

Ending a long series of workshops, debates and closed-door meetings, the Town Council this week voted to merge the town’s fire and emergency medical services. The unification of JEMS and the Fire Department, which will be effectiv e on July 1, will launch yet another long process: enhancing pre-hospital emergency service to an advanced level.

The council’s June 20 meeting was just over three hours long and produced several important work products besides the merger decision. The other votes involved the pending police chief vacancy, protections for sensitive coastal waters, and the proposed wind turbine moratorium. In their capacity as members on the Board of Water and Sewer, the councilors also voted on a package of rules to protect drinking water.

The merger vote was the most significant of all the decisions. The merger is intended to address concerns about friction in the relationship between JEMS and the Fire Department, and sub-par performance in emergency response. The performance incidents have only been discussed during the council’s executive sessions, so their number and seriousness aren’t publicly known.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that the town can expect substantial improvements in emergency medical services as a result of the merger. The benefits of blending the operations, Keiser said, include improved personnel management and deployment, improved response, increased financial accountability for expenditures, more intensive and systematic training, and enhanced revenues from insurance reimbursements.

Keiser also pointed out that Jamestown is one of only three Rhode Island towns without any aspect of advanced-level EMS. Once the departments have merged, there will be an effort to gradually elevate the town’s medical response capabilities to the higher standard.

The elevation of its capabilities to the advanced level is dependent on the foundation that the merger will provide, Keiser said, explaining that the unification “will upgrade and standardize skill levels of volunteer [emergency medical technicians], improve morale and participation, and create a platform for external performance oversight.”

Under the merger terms, the Fire Department will add an Emergency Medical Services Company that will be directed by Deputy Fire Chief Howie Tighe, who will still perform some fire prevention responsibilities in addition to his management and emergency-response duties.

Deputy JEMS Commander Janine Tatzel, who will become a captain in the company, will “attend meetings with Newport Hospital and the state health department when called upon,” Keiser told the council.

Tighe will be paid $25 per hour, with the company budgeting $45,500 in anticipation of his annual wages for a year of 35-hour weeks. Tatzel will be paid $20 per hour, with the company budgeting $2,000 for her as-needed services as company captain. Besides their incentive payments, EMTs will be paid according to the following scale for each shift: $26 for the EMT in charge, $22 for the crewmembers, and $15 for the driver.

The merger agreement increases the number of EMTs per vehicles to three from its current average of two. Resident Jerry Scott warned that it will be difficult to provide three EMTs and a crew member for each run, but Tighe pointed out that the number of EMTs will be increasing substantially – all the way up to 60 – because there will be Fire Department personnel joining the company in addition to the individuals who are slated to apply for certification.

Nevertheless, resident Alan Gouveia – who works for the Warwick Fire Department – questioned the adequacy of three EMTs and a crewmember, saying his department “sends five people on every run.”

A clerical issue that still has to be addressed involves merger language saying EMS personnel will have property-tax abatements by virtue of $75,000 reductions in the value of their properties for taxassessment purposes. The existing memorandum of understanding between JEMS and the town says volunteers who don’t own property are eligible for $700 cash payments in lieu of the tax abatements. Under the merger agreement, the $75,000 property-value reduction is supposed to be replaced with language specifying $700 payments, but some of the old language was inadvertently left in place and has to be deleted before the agreement enters into force.

Councilor Ellen Winsor protested as “backwards” the council decision to vote on a resolution to merge the departments before holding the four separate votes necessary to facilitate the merger by amending the town’s Code of Ordinances. Winsor argued that the ordinance amendments should have been debated before the resolution vote, adding that the decision to vote on the resolution before the amendments amounted to a “coup d’etat.” She also said that there seemed to be “something clandestine” about the decision on the voting sequence.

Town Council President Mike Schnack responded that he was “insulted” by Winsor’s suggestion that the council had staged a “coup d’etat,” adding that there was nothing “clandestine” about the “many heart-wrenching discussions” which led to the merger agreement by the departments.

Councilor Mike White observed that the two departments “sat down with town officials for a long time” and “agreed unanimously” to proceed with the merger.

“The need for restructuring emergency medical services was thoroughly discussed during a public workshop with our consultant,” said Keiser. “There was nothing clandestine about those discussions and there wasn’t any coup d’etat.”

In other votes and decisions, the council appointed Lt. Angela Deneault to serve as acting police chief upon the retirement of Police Chief Thomas Tighe, who will step down on July 1 after 44 years of service. The appointment followed the earlier adoption of a proclamation honoring Tighe for guiding the department “to a state-of-the-times department using modern day law enforcement practices and technology.”

The council also adopted a moratorium – effective immediately – against any anchorage in coastal waters designated as Conservation Zones. The amendment to the Harbor Management Ordinance also provides a clear definition of the Conservation Zone boundaries in Dutch Harbor.

The council decided against a proposed moratorium on the construction of privately owned wind turbines. Three other Rhode Island towns – Charlestown, Middletown and North Kingstown – have imposed the moratoria, but “there isn’t any big drive by anyone to build here,” said Schnack. Winsor, who had advanced the idea, said a moratorium would demonstrate the town’s concern for its viewscapes. But White, after saying “we might live to regret” the decision against a moratorium, noted that the deliberate pace of town decisions would provide an opportunity to pass a moratorium if the need arose.

Finally, the council adopted in its role as members of the Board of Water and Sewer a package of statemandated rules to prevent backfl ows from wastewater lines into drinking water lines. To implement the rules, the town will perform inspections to determine if cross-connections exist in homes and businesses, and require the installation of special valves if the connections are discovered.

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