BISBEE — The Bisbee Fire Department will not be transporting patients out of the county to hospitals in Tucson on a regular basis as the Mayor and City Council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Arizona Ambulance.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Fire Chief George Castillo and Lt. Raul Villasenor explained the reduced staff and aging vehicles were being run ragged trying to keep up with the number of transports from the Copper Queen Community Hospital to Tucson. They told council members Louis Pawlick, Joni Giacomino, Bill Higgins, Leslie Johns, Joan Hansen and Anna Cline and Mayor David Smith of the difficulties they were having.
Castillo said the firefighter’s union was concerned for the safety of the two–person teams working long hours and falling asleep at the wheel or being so drowsy on the trips back collisions with animals along the rural stretches of highway are a hazard. Also, the department is having some difficulty keeping the ambulances maintained or acquiring new ones and the long hauls add to the problem.
Then there is the fact the payment received for the transports does not cover the costs. Add in the problem of only having five paramedics on staff and it is difficult to cover the city appropriately while sending teams off on transports.
“It can take five or six hours to go up and back,” said Castillo. “We get paid to go up there, but not for the return trip.”
Villasenor reported the BFD was only collecting around 60 percent of the costs of the transports.
“We get a flat $936 pickup fee no matter where we go,” Villasenor noted. “There is a mileage rate, $16.73 a mile, but it doesn’t cover the costs for the paramedics, supplies and maintenance on the vehicles.”
Currently, Arizona Ambulance has been handling trips to Tucson and BFD makes transports when they can. The MOU allows BFD to take a lesser role in transporting patients out of the county.
BFD would continue with in–county transfers to Douglas, Sierra Vista and Benson. On the occasion a resident did not want to be transported by Arizona Ambulance, Castillo said they would honor such a request if staff were available.
“It’s hard to retain firefighters and paramedics when the pay is so low,” said Castillo. “A paramedic trains for a year and a half and then only makes $1 more an hour. Some of our firefighters were born here and want to stay here even though they could make more at other departments. They’re loyal.”
Pawlick, a former fire marshal, commented on the hardships of a small department that was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s a tough job,” he remarked. “I am convinced they have a good argument.”
City manager Theresa Coleman reported the transports only brought in $662,000 in the 2018-2019 fiscal year and suggested the $1 million budgeted for transports was overestimated.
“This year, we’ll have something more realistic,” she added.
Sales tax extension, increase going to voters
Later on in the meeting under another agenda item, Coleman asked the council for direction on making permanent the one percent sales tax for streets and infrastructure and consideration of tacking on another one percent to meet other needs in the city.
Specifying just what the new tax would be used for, it was suggested by Cline to use some to pay for public safety, such as the fire department.
Giacomino suggested some be set aside for the city’s retaining walls.
Coleman was given the go-ahead to present the tax increases for approval so the measures could be on the ballot in November.