When seconds matter Panama City Fire may not show up

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Panama City, Fla. (WMBB) – Nearly every day, firefighters save lives. 

And while the image of firefighters involves stopping fires, rescuing people from burning buildings and pulling cats out of trees the reality of the job in the Panhandle is something else. 

After Panama City officials announced that they were going to end the program that sent firefighters to medical calls and leave those patients to county ambulances News 13 decided to take a closer look at the issue.

We reached out to multiple fire departments in the Panhandle and what we found was that firefighters spend a majority of their time responding to medical calls.

In 2017:  

  • The Springfield Fire Department’s budget was $1.1 million. They ran 1,975 calls. 1,510 of those were medical calls. 
  • The Callaway Fire Department’s budget was $1.1 million. In 2017 they ran 2,675 calls. Of those, 1,792 were medical.
  • The Parker Fire Department’s budget was $300,000. They ran 802 calls in 2017. The department says about 680 of those calls were medical.
  • Panama City Beach Fire officials said they do not break out their statistics based on medical calls versus all other calls. The department has a budget of $5.5 million. They answered 4,513 calls for service in 2017. 
  • Finally, Panama City Fire Department has a budget of $7 million. In 2017 they went to 5,212 calls. The department says 3,542 were medical calls. 

There is no way to determine how valuable such a service can be. Firefighters mend wounds, dry tears and save lives. 

The department even came up with a Life Saving Award. Since 2016 the department has proudly handed out 26 awards. 

Here is one of those moments:

(Can’t see the video in the app? Click here to launch in a mobile browser.)

On the hot cloudless morning after Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle Bay County’s ambulance service was not yet running. Trees, power poles and other debris blocked most of the area’s roadways. All power and communications lines were down and would remain down for weeks. 

Despite these difficulties Firefighters Oscar Vega and Jon Michael Lefurge, and Engineer and EMT Eric Ponce were ready to go to work. A woman walked up to the station and told them her father was having chest pains. 

The men loaded up a pick up truck with a camper shell and headed towards the patient. They were forced to stop a block and a half away from the man’s home. When they get to him they determined he is having a serious medical emergency and they carry him back through the debris to their truck. Lefurge and Ponce performed CPR and applied an AED while Vega drove through the debris and road hazards to get the man to a hospital. 

Before the emergency room staff began their treatment the firefighters had regained a pulse in the patient and gotten him breathing again.

Another life saved. Another day on the job. 

But even for people who are called to crises every day, another day on the job can barely describe what firefighter and EMT, Marty McFaul, went through when he and his coworkers arrived at a Panama City home at 2 a.m. 

A woman had just had a baby unexpectedly. 

She was in shock. The baby wasn’t breathing.

The crew leapt into action and while some of them tried to assist the new mom McFaul picked the infant up, wrapped it in a blanket and tried to help it take its first breaths. 

 He used a syringe and sucked the fluid out of the baby’s nose and mouth. Then, he tickled the baby’s feet. 

The stimulation was all the baby need to start breathing again. McFaul could breathe again himself, as feelings of relief washed over him. 

“That’s what we’re here to do and that’s what we want to do,” McFaul told News 13 last July. “So, when we get a call like that, and take those actions and get an immediate impact on someone’s life, it’s really rewarding.” 

However, on Friday Panama City officials said the job Vega, McFaul and dozens of others are doing so well must change. 

It began with an email to Panama City Fire Department employees from Fire Chief Alexander Baird. He wrote that it was with, “great regret” that he was announcing the suspension of EMS services at the request of the city manager. City Manager Mark McQueen was out of town Friday and before the day was over the email made its way to MyPanhandle.com (you can read that story here) and Facebook page where it created a storm of comments and activity. 

McQueen sent a statement to the media before the night was over. 

“We are refocusing the City’s efforts towards fire safety and away from EMS services for two reasons: 

To provide Panama City the premier level of firefighter readiness, and to deliver the highest level of fire safety to residents.

The EMS function is and always has been a County responsibility—including for all cities within the county. They have performed this function very well and are continuing to provide exceptional service.

My highest priority is for the safety and security of our citizens. This new direction, phased in over time, better positions the City to meet these needs.”

That was far from the end of the story. On Monday, McQueen and Baird presented a united front to the media and local residents about the plan. 

“What I’ve heard repeatedly from the Chief of Fire is that our firefighters are fatigued,” McQueen said. “They’re underpaid and they have poor resources in terms of facilities.”

He also emphasized for the second time that it was the county’s responsibility to provide EMS services. 

We spoke to members of the Panama City Fire Department about these issues this week. One of them agreed to speak to us on the condition that we not release his name. Changing or eliminating the program was a shock.

“We were behind in 2016 when we started the program,” he said. Every department in the country goes to medical calls, he added. 

No one can doubt that Panama City’s firefighters are underpaid. A cursory glance at the exit interviews of Panama City firefighters shows that money is the main, and sometimes only reason why a good firefighter would leave the department.

On one exit interview, a supervisor helplessly wrote, “Rex is a good employee that we are losing due to inadequate pay. We have invested over 852 hours of training and time in this individual as well.”

At issue here may be the city’s priorities. 

The city’s prior leadership seemed much more interested in forcing unions out of the area than they were in dealing with the obvious problem that the city’s fire and police officers are some of the lowest paid in both the state and the region. 

The current leadership lobbied for and received the money necessary to hire an outside marketing firm and has mentioned the need for a public safety coordinator, who would oversee the police and fire departments and and an education consultant to examine public education issues in the city.

As for raises, McQueen began to deal with this week by announcing the city was eliminating dozens of positions and taking the money that was in the budget for those jobs and applying it to raises for all employees. 

The second issue, of firefighter fatigue, is much harder to examine. Certainly, these are difficult jobs. 

“Yes, there may be days we are running a bunch of calls and we are tired but that’s what we signed up for,” a Panama City firefighter said. “But that doesn’t hinder our services. It doesn’t take away from our skills when we are running a structure fire. It’s not like we are too tired to do our job. That’s not the case at all.”

Also, firefighters in departments across the Panhandle manage to handle the workload. 

Callaway, Parker, Lynn Haven and Panama City Beach firefighters all run to medical calls on top of their work fighting fires. We spoke to all of them and several other departments throughout the region. 

It’s part of the job they said. It’s their duty.

“Any emergency services person … they want to be there first, they want to help that person,” said Larry Couch, the chief of the Panama City Beach Fire Department. “We are always called to help folks on the worst day of their life usually. And that is what drives us, you know. When you become a firefighter you’re not doing it to become rich. You do it because you have it within you to help folks.”

Everyone agrees that response time for a medical emergency can quite literally be the difference between life and death. 

This is something first responders understand intimately. If a firefighter gets to a scene quick enough, starts CPR or applies an AED they are saving lives and in their words, “saving brain tissue.” 

What isn’t clear, at least according to Panama City, is who is supposed to show up quickly. 

Panama City Fire Stations are strategically placed around Panama City. Their average response time to a call is four and a half minutes, compared to six and a half for EMS.

If your loved one is in a car accident or having a heart attack in Panama City a trained firefighter can be there in about four minutes and thirty seconds. Sometimes, a lot quicker than that. The department has fire stations strategically located across the city. The county, on the other hand, has nine ambulances for a much larger area and their typical response time is six and a half minutes.

On the one hand city officials praised the work of Bay County’s EMT’s and the ambulance service in general. On the other, they seemed to suggest that if Panama City residents were concerned that response times would be lax following a suspension of fire services in the city, the best place to take those concerns would be the county. 

On Monday, county officials seemed content to issue a statement about the change.

“Panama City fire service is a city issue and their decision does not impact the county’s portion of the EMS chain of care. Bay County EMS will respond as we always have. Panama City determines which services and what levels of service to provide inside their boundaries, and we will continue to work with them as we always have in support of their operations at whatever service levels they deem appropriate for their personnel and citizens.”

But by Tuesday, county officials felt the need to do interviews about the situation with the local media. And his message was clear. The job of being a fast first responder belongs to police and fire departments. 

That’s a responsibility of law enforcement and fire agencies. That’s not a service that the county provides in the municipalities.

County Manager Bob Majka

Given the controversy, it’s not surprising that the city seems to be backtracking on the issue. On Friday and Monday it seemed as if the fire department would soon drop all medical response calls. But by midweek the message was that the department would only drop some of the more minor calls. On Friday, News 13 received this statement from City Manager Mark McQueen:

The safety and security of our citizens is paramount. The City is and will continue responding to critical and life-threatening emergencies. In an effort to reduce firefighter fatigue, I am working with Fire Chief Alex Baird to evaluate best practices and the types of non-emergency calls that firefighters respond to. We expect to complete this review by the end of next week. Panama City’s firefighters are award-winning first responders and have my utmost trust & confidence to meet the emergency needs of our citizens.

Panama City Manager Mark McQueen

“Whenever the program was initiated that was the idea that we weren’t going to be running to non-emergent type calls,” a local firefighter said. 

This Life Saving Award was given to Captain Curt Smith in April.

But what they found was that it was difficult to determine how much help a victim needed based on a 911 calls. A call for a drug overdose can be something entirely different if firefighters arrive and find the victim has seriously injured themselves. 

How the department would decide which calls to respond to and which to ignore isn’t clear. Last year, McFaul was expecting a routine medical call. Instead, he saved a baby’s life.   

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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