NEWBURYPORT — City officials are considering handing control of ambulance services to the Fire Department.
The city now contracts with Atlantic Ambulance Service, a subdivision of Cataldo Ambulance Service, for ambulance runs.
But Mayor Donna Holaday said she and other officials are deciding if the city should switch to a fire department-based emergency medical services program. That move would require the city to purchase two ambulances and add four firefighters to the payroll.
Bringing the ambulance service in-house would allow the city to utilize the skills of its firefighters — all of whom are trained emergency medical technicians — and collect revenue from those skills, Holaday said.
"This will be a major change for firefighters in terms of their working conditions," Holaday said. "We're evaluating it to see if it makes sense for the city."
Holaday noted that the contract with the firefighters union expires June 30 and that the city must first negotiate the terms of a new contract.
The city recently received a projection of the potential cost and revenue that could come from such a shift from Newburyport resident and retired public health analyst Terry Rooney.
Rooney's report estimated the cost of implementing the program — including purchasing ambulances, hiring firefighters, providing training and buying supplies — would be more than $400,000.
In the report, Rooney said the city pays $2.16 million for the ambulance service, which is 60 percent of the Fire Department's annual budget. If the department provided ambulance service, it would bring in about $524,000 per year, the report said.
Municipal control of ambulance service is on the rise, with nearly 70 percent of communities now operating their own ambulances, the report said.
Holaday said the report gives a "good starting point in terms of analysis" of a potential city-run ambulance program, but she said there is still much work to be done.
"There are a lot of moving parts," Holaday said, adding that if the program is adopted, she hopes it would be in the fall.
The mayor said that last week, the city submitted an application for a Safety for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would pay a portion of the salaries of the four additional firefighters. The grant would cover 75 percent of the new firefighters' salaries for a year, and then pay a lower percentage each of the next three years.
"That could be a huge help for us," she said. "This would help us be more responsive in terms of meeting national standards and would help us launch the ambulance service and fund the staffing so we could generate revenue, which would help us move the process forward."
Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire has long supported the idea of having his department provide ambulance service. After working for fire departments in Hampton, North Hampton and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, LeClaire said Newburyport is the first community he has worked in where emergency transportation service is handled by a private company.
LeClaire noted the department would still rely on its partnership with Cataldo for when there is an overflow of calls, but said allowing city firefighters to transport patients would make for a more streamlined care system.
"I think it allows for better patient care. There's nothing wrong with our provider, but we don't have any control over what they do," LeClaire said. "I think that our firefighters should be doing the work, establishing relationships with the patients and handing them off to the doctor."
And while LeClaire said the additional revenue would help the department pay for its needs, he mainly supports the idea because of its benefits for city residents.
"I want to do it because it's the right thing to do," LeClaire said.
Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport City Hall. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.