Bill would allow fire depts. to recover costs of EMS services

Legislative Gazette file photo

Members of four of the largest fire service organizations in New York state are pushing for a bill that would allow fire departments to recover costs of providing emergency medical services.

Currently in New York state, fire departments are the only providers who are not permitted to recover costs of providing emergency medical services.

Organizations in attendance included the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York, New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York and the County Fire Coordinators’ Association of the State of New York.

The bill (S.0363b/A.7717b), sponsored by Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, would allow fire departments to recover the costs of running emergency medical services (EMS) calls without raising any taxes by billing those serviced.

The bill is an effort to provide equality among the state’s EMS providers which include private EMS companies, volunteer ambulance corps and fire departments.  

“Fire departments across New York state are facing an affordability crisis. EMS is a core mission for many departments,” said John Sroka, president of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. “But providing this service demands a significant investment in time, training and resources.  Fire departments must be permitted to recover the costs associated with EMS, as every other provider in the state already does, in order to ensure the health and safety of all New Yorkers.”

Staffing an ambulance requires investment in personnel, equipment training and time, which is causing an affordability crisis for the fire departments. The passage of this bill would provide financial relief to many departments across the state, which would help them improve response times and continue providing service.

Fire departments would be permitted, but not required, to bill a patient or insurer for ambulance services and EMS services in accordance with a pre-established schedule of fees set forth by the departments themselves.

“The cost is minimal for New Yorkers, and the benefit is much greater,” said Tom Rinaldi, president of the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York. “When these laws were originally written, most fire departments were blessed with plenty of volunteers.  Today many of the EMS providers in New York state are paid, increasing the base cost to taxpayers.”

Fire departments provide ambulances services to nearly half of the state, are smaller and are staffed with volunteers. In some parts of the state, more than 80 percent of calls to fire departments are EMS calls, which leads to many departments handling those calls more than fire runs.

“Today, ambulance service is a core fundamental part of what we do,” said Lee Shurtleff, director and fire coordinator of Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response.’

There are currently 1,025 ambulance services that operate in New York. Of those, 468 services are operated by volunteer fire departments. These departments collectively run over 300,000 EMS calls a year.  

“We’re limited to a property tax cap of 2 percent,” Shurtleff said. “The ability for fire departments to maintain their services means that they have to look to revenue streams outside of the property tax dollars.”

Many departments do not have the funds to supply both EMS and fire response. For many rural and suburban communities, this may mean the difference between the life and death of their ambulance service.  

“The reality is that some departments are having to reexamine the feasibility of continuing to provide these services,” said Kenneth Pienkowski, president of the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York. “This legislation is a simple, elegant solution, and would likely result in faster ambulance response times at no cost to the taxpayer.”