Merger of HFD,
EMS pondered

There were plenty of naysayers the last time the city tried to merge the Honolulu Fire Department with Emergency Medical Services, which oversees ambulance and lifeguard duties on Oahu.

But today, nine years after the City Council killed a proposed merger, some city officials feel the political climate is right to push for merging the two city departments.

"The time is right for us to start talking again," Fire Chief Attilio Leonardi said yesterday after a briefing before the City Council Budget Committee. "My whole contention is, let's sit down and let's explore it. Are there benefits to it? Is there going to be cost savings to it? Is it going to be better for the citizens?"

Leonardi has gotten discussions rolling again with other city and state agencies and officials about the possibility of merging the two city departments.

The issue of firefighter and ambulance services merging has popped up periodically in the past 35 years, Leonardi said. The last time was in 1996, when the City Council killed a proposed amendment to the City Charter that approved the merger.

At the time, proponents said the merger would lead to faster response times and eliminate duplication of services.

But the merger proposal was met with opposition from paramedics who believed they would be forced to become firefighters. Female paramedics were concerned that the merger would mean fewer opportunities for women who find it difficult to gain entry into the Fire Department. And they argued the merger would reduce service.

Leonardi said there was also opposition from the state, which reimburses the city for the cost of providing ambulance services, and the firefighters union.

But all that appears to be changing.

"A lot of the roadblocks that were there before seem to be crumbling as the years pass and as the proficiency level and our working relationship with the other agencies improve," Leonardi said. "They're more comfortable working with us. They see that our guys are capable of doing the job."

What has changed since the last time the city took up the issue in 1996 is that more firefighters are being trained as basic emergency medical technicians, and the department is handling more medical calls.

In 1998, HFD and Emergency Medical Services signed an agreement detailing when ambulance dispatchers will ask firefighters to respond jointly to a medical call.

Leonardi told the Budget Committee yesterday that in 1994, 65 percent of HFD's calls were for fire services and 35 percent were medical. Last year, HFD's medical calls made up nearly 70 percent of the 33,352 calls for assistance.

Leonardi is scheduled to leave the department at the end of the year and said he would like to get the issue moving by then. He has asked EMS officials to form an exploratory committee.

Dr. Elizabeth Char, city EMS director, said she has agreed to get together with fire officials and look at a possible merger.

"We don't have a broken system now, so unless this new merger or system can provide us a better service while upholding medical care and saving the city money ... then it may be a good idea," Char told councilmembers.

Honolulu Fire Department
Emergency Medical Services

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