Fire chief given OK to proceed with first responder program

SWARTZ CREEK — The Swartz Creek City Council given preliminary approval for the Swartz Creek Area Fire Department to continue the process of reinstating medical first responder calls.

Fire Chief Dave Plumb requested the reinstatement after a change in emergency dispatching protocols led to longer wait times for ambulances.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” said Plumb. “It’s something we’ve been keeping an eye on for some time.”

If the fire board, city council and Clayton Township Board of Trustees board give final approval in the coming months, Plumb estimates the program could be up and running sometime between May and July.

Plumb presented the idea to the township board last week, and several members requested additional information.

In 2020, there were 352 Tier 1 (life-threatening) medical calls in the City of Swartz Creek, and 247 in Clayton Township. In 54 of those instances in the city, an ambulance and/or sheriff paramedic was more than eight miles away, Plumb said. The same was true for 48 calls last year in the township.

“On some occasions, they were 18 miles away,” he said.

Last month, a local first responder could have been dispatched five times in the city, and five times in the township, the chief said.

One of the issues that sticks in the craw of some officials is that Genesee County residents already pay a millage for the sheriff’s department paramedics.

“We already pay for someone to do this,” said township Treasurer Rick Caruso. “We shouldn’t have a millage that says it’s for paramedics if they’re police first.”

Plumb said a lot has changed in the way emergency medical services respond in Genesee County in recent years.

“Everyone used to have a base,” he explained. “We had one at Miller and Dye for quite some time. When they changed, and said they could go by the GPS, everyone kind of pushed into the center of the county, because that’s where most of the calls are coming from.”

More recently, COVID-19 has had some effect on the availability of ambulances, as crews must sanitize the rigs after each run. However, Plumb said there is little difference in the data from 2020 as compared to 2019.

Plumb said he has a plan that will help keep the costs in check. While most departments that respond to medical calls will tone out all of the firefighters, his plan involves assigning one or two first responders to 12-hour, on-call time slots, and only those people would respond unless additional fire support was needed.

“We could allow them to take home one of the utility vehicles on a rotation, and respond directly to scene,” Plumb said. “Many other fire departments require that they first go to the station. So, we can also cut down on response time.”

Start-ups costs are minimal, he said.

Training could be accomplished in-house, and medical first responders would be paid their usual wage as if they’d responded to a fire, an average of about $15 per hour. Plumb estimates the responders would be on scene for about an hour per call.

Seven SCAFD personnel, including one who is a paramedic, already are certified as medical first responders, and the department would provide training to any others who wish to join the rotation.

“We have a group of firefighters who are very dedicated to the fire district we serve,” Plumb said.

Neighboring agencies have offered to donate some of the necessary equipment.

And, as far as liability costs, the service already is covered under the department’s existing insurance policy.

Whether the change would be short-term or indefinite will depend on the future availability of ambulances in the county, he said.

He added that if the fire department sees a high increase in costs, he will evaluate the situation and make the appropriate adjustments.

Residents in the City of Swartz Creek and Clayton Township would not be billed for the fire department’s services, since they already pay taxes to support the department.

The city could set up a cost recovery program in which it would bill insurance companies for services provided to people who do not live within the fire district. The township already has a cost recovery program.