As of Aug. 26, the town of Johnston will no longer provide mutual aid to the city of Providence for EMS services. The decision came after Providence failed to respond to a coalition of mayors demanding that the city either add on more rescues or pay a $500 fee for calls not covered by insurance.
“I can no longer allow Johnston residents to subsidize the Providence EMS department,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “This cannot and will not continue.”
Combined, the communities of Johnston, North Providence and East Providence respond to more than 1,500 emergency calls in Providence each year. In 2011, Johnston rescue responded to 473 calls in Providence, or 10 percent of their total calls. In return, Providence rescues came to Johnston just 23 times.
The figures in North and East Providence are even higher. North Providence responded to Providence 553 times, and East Providence rushed to the capital 562 times.
“The numbers speak for themselves. The city needs to address this very serious problem,” said North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi.
Polisena, along with Lombardi and East Providence Mayor Bruce Rogers, met with Providence officials to discuss the strain mutual aid was putting on the budgets and workforces of surrounding communities. The mayors met first on May 4, and again on May 16, at which time they set a 30-day deadline for Providence to respond.
The deadline has come and gone, and Providence has not informed the mayors what course of action they plan to take. Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said adding additional rescues or paying a fee for mutual aid calls is not feasible at this time, due to the unstable fiscal condition of the city.
“There’s not an easy solution; I don’t believe the solution is to stop mutual aid. We rely on our regional towns and cities to provide that aid,” he said.
Pare believes there are long-term solutions to providing some relief to EMS services, which have experienced a gradual increase in demand in recent years. He sat on a commission last year to review methods for diverting traffic from emergency rooms. The Rhode Island House and Senate passed a law to enact a pilot program based on the commission’s findings, and Pare believes the EMS system will change as a result. He has also met with Providence agencies that are habitual users of emergency services to discuss appropriate use of 911 services.
“Nine-one-one has been overused and I predict 75 percent of those 911 EMS calls are non-emergency. There’s education on the public’s part, as well,” he said.
Lombardi said a plan to add additional rescues into service would have sufficed for him. He believes Providence should have at least two more rescues to add to their existing fleet of six, which respond to roughly 32,000 calls annually.
The alternative to adding rescues was to pay a fee for mutual aid services. The mayors requested a flat fee of $500 for calls not covered by insurance. With the average basic life support call costing roughly $1,060, the towns would still be losing money, but the fee would have offset the expense. If insurance covered $200, for example, the sending town would then ask for $300 to bring recovered costs up to that $500 benchmark.
In addition to the cost of calls, Polisena pointed to the high cost of diesel gas for emergency vehicles and the overtime charges resulting during shift changes or when calls to Providence run long.
“It’s costing Johnston taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually,” Polisena said.
In East Providence, where the city is under the watchful eye of a state-appointed budget commission, Rogers says they are looking at every dollar spent. He questioned why he must do more with less when Providence is not taking action to address this problem.
“The city of East Providence is habitually on the losing end,” he said, adding that he can no longer “look the other way.”
Critics of the plan question if the communities are putting Providence residents in the middle of an issue they have no control over.
“It puts people’s lives at risk,” Pare said. “Public safety relies on mutual aid.”
Lombardi turned the question around, asking how he could face his own residents when rescue does not arrive to their home in time because they are responding to a call in Providence.
“It’s my job as the mayor and public safety director to provide the best possible safety services to the residents of our town,” he said. “We are subsidizing service to the city of Providence and, at the same time, jeopardizing service to the residents of our town. It boils down to responsibility, and my responsibility first is to the taxpayers of the town of North Providence.”
Polisena, too, said the results of this decision are for Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to live with.
“I’m the mayor of Johnston, Rhode Island, not Providence. I understand human life is precious, but it’s not my problem in Providence,” he said.
Lombardi says the mayors have given Providence fair warning, and were willing to work with the city to work out an agreement. The three municipalities do not plan to discontinue mutual aid until 60 days have passed.
“If we were trying to be hardnosed about this, this would have ended two weeks ago,” he said. “The answer I don’t want to hear is ‘we don’t have the money.’”
When asked if Providence would reciprocate the arrangement, and cease mutual aid to its neighboring communities, Pare said that would not happen.
“No, we don’t believe in discontinuing mutual aid. That’s not the way we should deal with public safety,” he said.