Our story so far: The Ambulance issue in Upper Providence has been going on for well over two years at this point. For recaps of the discussion points see here, here and here. The issue sparked some fireworks each time, most recently at the last Board meeting when the Board voted in favor of what was billed as “Objective Staff Recommendations” for Fire and EMS policies.
The ultimate source of contention was whether these policy recommendations are, in fact, objective and those of Staff.
As mentioned in a previous post, I filed a “Right to Know” request for the information that went into the calculation of the Ambulance vs. Medic Responder score card (below) presented at the 4/4 special meeting of Upper Providence Township.
For those unfamiliar with the RTK law, Ballotopedia has a pretty good synopsis on their website:
The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act legislates the methods by which public meetings are conducted.
Prior to 2008, the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act was widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, partly because the pre-2008 law presumed that government records were not public, unless someone who wanted the record could establish otherwise. A law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell “flipped the presumption.” This new law went into full effect on January 1, 2009 and it states, in sharp distinction to the previous law, that all documents will be presumed to be open to the public unless the agency holding them can prove otherwise.
Since the current meeting hall was proven inadequate to serving the public during the last two meetings of the Board of Supervisors, and since whining against the construction of the larger meeting hall is one of the Upper Providence Democrats’ favorite hobby horses, this particular page may be of interest as it also outlines the “Open Meetings” provision of PA’s sunshine laws, a provision with which the Democrats may also want to acquaint themselves:
The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision-making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.
As for the coordinated messaging and tactics amongst the newly elected Democrats? I’ll let Sunshine laws speak for themselves. Close observers of the last several meetings will note that Vagnozzi and Barker approach each issue before the Board with completely different perspectives. Barker’s critique of the medic responder unit centered on the outdated model and his personal experience with it running calls. Vagnozzi’s critique came from experience as well, but a different kind of experience backed up by well researched facts. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been lockstep in their reasons for rejecting the Ambulance, right down to the coordinated, unprecedented move of “Pearson’s Girls” each composing “signing statements” to read aloud at a public meeting.
For those of you that thought you were voting for a five member Board in November 2016, I’m here to tell you: this Board is still three members. And their perspective on things is anything but fresh.
At the 4/4 meeting, Supervisor Al Vagnozzi accused the Democrats of “bullying” Township staff into presenting a policy direction that showed favoritism towards the Democrats preferred option of doing as little as possible putting in a medic responder as opposed to an ambulance. Vagnozzi reiterated that accusation in a letter to the Times Herald and at the 4/16 meeting of the BOS. Having spent the better part of the last two years of my term hashing out EMS and Fire issues, I found myself in agreement with Vagnozzi in his evaluation of the presentation.
I submitted the following RTK request to the Township on April 19:
I am requesting all information (records) related to the following specific data points on the “Scoring of EMS Options” slide included in the Upper Providence Fire and EMS slide presentation and the special public meeting of the Board of Supervisors held on April 4, 2018:
- All information (records) used to calculate the data point entitled “Impact on Regional Providers,” and used to justify the scoring of ALS Ambulance versus ALS Medic Responder.
- All information (records) used to calculate the data points entitled “Response Times” and “Crew Uptime Availability” and used to justify the scoring of ALS Ambulance versus ALS Medic responder on these data points
- The differences between the “Response Time” criteria and the “Crew Uptime Availability” criteria used to arrive at the scoring.
Along with several documents, I received the following response from Township Solicitor Joe Bresnan:
I am attaching various documents that were a part of the overall decision-making process. In the end, however, the point that was emphasized to me by Tim and Bryan was that no document exists which directly caused or led to the assignment of a particular number in the scoring columns (1, 2 or 3). These end scores are based on subjective experience even though a lot of what was considered involved actual calculations. For example, you will see various calculations and estimates of costs provided by Josh, price quotes for equipment, etc., but when it comes down to saying whether all of those numbers drive a cost score of a “1” or a “3”, they do not directly compel a particular number but are the basis for deciding what number to assign. Strictly speaking, there is no document that is responsive to the request in that no document includes a formula that ends in a result of “1”, “2”, or “3”. The attached documents, along with countless meetings and phone calls, experience working in the Township, experience working elsewhere, and even common sense, all combined to drive the ultimate assignment of a single digit number to the relevant column.
This, by the way, is not really typical of how these objective scoring matrices are settled upon. In my experience, each member of whatever committee was evaluating a particular decision was given a scoring sheet on which they scored various options. The scores are then objectively tallied to a final scorecard. When I was a part of the Township, we did quite a few of these exercises, for example, when we hired the Chief of Police and the Township Manager (and it should be noted that John Pearson took part in both of these evaluations).
That all being said, color me completely unsurprised that this particular scoring matrix did not use that same methodology.
I received the following documents as part of my request:
- Pennsylvania Advanced Life Support Protocols (2017)
- 2018 Dodge Ram Cap2018 Dodge Ram COSTARS Quote
- Marriott’s Emergency Equipment Fitup Quote for 2018 Dodge Ram
- Ambulance Purchse Order
- Upper Providence Ambulance Cost Projection – Draft 112917
- FINAL Presentation – April 4, 2018 Special Meeting on Fire and EMS Services – with 04.04.2018 edits (Reffered to in this post as “Official Presentaion)
- DRAFT UPFES Future Presentation (referred to in this post as the “March Slide Show)
- EMS White Paper Report and Recommendations (2017)
- FD Stats & EMS Costs
- Friendship EMS Projection 20180320
- TFC Revised Budget Impact Models
- Trappe Projections August and November
- Overholt Email 031018
- Bortnichak email 032118 Slide Comments
As mentioned above, the 2017 EMS White Paper I referenced in a previous post was part of the decision making process.
My RTK request also yielded an undated slides from a prior strategic planning session (entitled “DRAFT UPFES Future Presentation”) that were notably different from the slides presented at the 4/4 meeting. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the DRAFT UPFES Future Presentation as the “March Slideshow” and the slideshow presented at the 4/4 meeting as the “Official Slideshow.”
Also included was an email dated 3/21/18 with the subject, “Slide Comments” from Assistant Manager Bortnichak to Township Manager Tieperman and copying only Supervisors Calci and Pearson. This email contains a list of suggested edits to the March Slide Show. You may recall that Calci volunteered to work with Vagnozzi on the ambulance subcommittee at the February 5 meeting, so this raises an interesting question:
Why was Pearson copied on these slide edits but Vagnozzi was not?
The first thing I noticed right off was the striking differences between the comparative budget presented at the April 4 meeting, here:
And the Budget that I received as part of the RTK, here:
These numbers are remarkable in that not only is the Ambulance option less expensive—much less expensive—in subsequent years, but it’s less expensive in the initial year as well! This is quite shocking and lends considerable weight to Vagnozzi’s assertions of doctored numbers and bullied staff.
Which Agencies are Impacted?
“Impact on other agencies” was probably the most oft-cited reason for choosing a Medic Responder over an Ambulance, especially after the “Exclusively serves UPT” line item was eviscerated as unrealistic.
Recall that Higgins went all Hippocratic Oath in her prepared remarks with her lecture on “first doing no harm” and Calci responded to specific questions with a statement about not “wanting to upset the applecart.” Pearson, of course, has been vocal about this from the beginning. In fact, the impact to other regional providers was pretty much the only decision point left to the Democrats by the time the vote came around (especially since even the rudimentary first year cost advantage disappears with the information provided above.)
Trappe Ambulance is only EMS that submitted revised forecast numbers. There was a set of forecast numbers submitted in August to the previous Board and a new set of numbers submitted to the new Board
in November 2017. I’m not sure why this is, as no explanation was given by Trappe Ambulance. I was not privy to these numbers until after I left office and I have tried several times to reconcile them with the orignal numbers we recieved to no avail. I sent a follow-up email to Tieperman for clarification as to why a second set of numbers was provided, but he was unable to offer an explanation either.
Since neither Friendship nor Lower Providence submitted “revised numbers” and my RTK called for “All information (records) used to calculate the data point entitled ‘Impact on Regional Providers,’ and used to justify the scoring of ALS Ambulance versus ALS Medic Responder,” I can only assume that the revised Trappe numbers were the only numbers that were considered in arriving at the scoring on this data point. But this raises the following questions:
- What necessitated Trappe’s submission of revised numbers after they presented different numbers in August to the previous Board?
- Were Friendship and Lower Providence asked if they wished to submit revised numbers as well?
- Were Trappe’s revised numbers the only factor behind finding an alternative to the Ambulance?
Finally, it’s been stated multiple times by staff, Republicans and Democrats on the Board of Supervisors that EMS call volume will probably be able to 100% support an ambulance in Upper Providence in two years, but so what? If Upper Providence institutes a Township ambulance in two years, this issue is still relevant. The real question is not whether or not UPT impacts regional providers, but WHEN they are going to impact these providers.
What does Springfield EMS have to do with any of this?
Another data point discussed in the “Slide Comments” email was the impending folding of another Montgomery County Ambulance Squad. This event hit the news the same day as the last Board meeting. Montgomery News:
The Community Ambulance Association of Ambler will be taking over Springfield Township’s ambulance responsibilities as of April 28.
During April 11’s board of commissioners business meeting, a 6-1 board vote terminated the Springfield Ambulance Association, and a 7-0 board vote hired the Community Ambulance Association of Ambler in its stead.
The email was rather vague about what the closing of Springfield Township Ambulance had to do with the overall presentation of Fire and EMS policy in Upper Providence and in what context that information was to be presented. It appears that Springfield Ambulance owed Springfield Township over $300,000.
A difficult business environment driven by low insurance reimbursements has made the smaller ambulance associations a dying breed, officials said.
Commissioners worked very hard to find a path forward for Springfield Ambulance including public support. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach agreement where we would have sufficient control to turn around the operation. Moving forward with Ambler will put us at far less financial risk in the future while ensuring the highest level of service,” Harbison said.
Officials said a modest amount of money will come through two more payrolls, but without a source of revenue after April 28, Springfield Ambulance will likely be unable to finance the debt owed to the township.
The township’s agreement with Ambler is for five years and will include a new ambulance [emphasis mine], as well as annual support from the township “in the high five figures depending on a few variables,” Harbison said.
Yes, you read that correctly: Springfield Township is buying an Ambulance for Ambler.
An earlier article offers a little more insight into the problems in Springfield Township. Montgomery News again (emphasis mine):
As the ambulance has teetered on the brink of insolvency, township board members have offered fiscal and administrative support to the ambulance directors, contingent on a change in leadership. The township’s preconditions called for the replacement of half of the ambulance’s eight board members, as well as the replacement of the ambulance’s current chief of operations.
According to officials, the ambulance’s board of directors has decided to reject the offer.
“We want to take over the board — those were our terms,” Springfield Township Board of Commissioners President Jeff Harbison said. “Change the board, change the chief. They don’t want us to replace the chief.
“We have the ability as a township to designate what they do but not how they do it. We have the ability to fire them, but we don’t have the ability to run them. All we can do is turn off the switch,” he said.
Officials said the insolvency of the ambulance can only be rectified by monetary support from the township, though the ambulance’s debt has been accruing for the better part of a decade.
“The issue is quite concerning,” Maxwell said. “We’ve been supporting them for several years through their payroll. They haven’t been timely in keeping up with their payments. There should be enough money coming in to sustain them, but because they’re unwilling to share any financial information, we’re basically blind as to where their problems are and how we can help fix them.
If I haven’t made this point in the past, let me make it now: In Pennsylvania, the local governing body is charged with providing for the health and safety of its residents. Most municipalities do this in a variety of ways: through contracts with service providers or volunteer agencies and in the case of police, either a township –employed police department, or through the Pennsylvania State Police. The point being, the provision of these services is arguably the number one duty of local elected officials and if there are problems with how these services are provided, it is incumbent upon that elected body to work through those issues for the good of their residents; not the good of the service provider.
Kudos to Springfield Township for making what I am sure was a very difficult decision in the best interests of their residents.
Lest you think a shortage of Volunteer firefighters is a problem unique to Upper Providence Township, think again. The issue of dwindling Fire Company Volunteers was in the news this week. TribLive:
Township officials from across the state passed a resolution Wednesday demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf call a special legislative session to address the volunteer crisis affecting local fire and emergency management services.
The resolution was unanimously adopted during the 96th annual educational conference of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) in Hershey.
PSATS President Shirl Barnhart called attention to the problems township supervisors face in keeping their residents safe and protected at a time when volunteers are dwindling and costs are soaring.
In recent decades, he said, the ranks of fire company volunteers have dropped from 300,000 strong in the 1960s and ’70s to below 50,000 today, a sobering statistic.
“If state and local governments don’t find a way to recruit and retain these very necessary volunteers, communities will be forced to pay nearly $10 billion a year for fire service, according to figures cited by the state fire commissioner,” said Barnhart, a supervisor and volunteer firefighter in Morgan Township, Greene County.
In fact, five fire companies are holding open houses this weekend to boost volunteer numbers. Mercury:
Each of the five fire companies — Black Rock Volunteer Fire Co., Centre Square Fire Co., Linfield Fire Co., Limerick Fire Co. and the Royersford Fire Department — will independently hold open houses this Saturday, May 5, to promote the importance of volunteer participation.
In recent years, volunteer fire companies everywhere have been experiencing an on-going shrinkage of the manpower pool. “Volunteer fire fighters within the commonwealth are a dying breed,” said Joseph LoCasale, president of Black Rock Volunteer FC. “The primary purpose of this Saturday’s multiple open houses is to let residents of our service areas know that their fire companies are staffed by volunteers and that there is always a need for additional manpower. It is our hope that more residents will step forward and give it a try.”
He stressed that being a volunteer with a fire company doesn’t mean that you have to be a firefighter. “If fire fighting is not for you, there are other opportunities to help out, such as fire police, administration, fire prevention education, vehicle and station maintenance and public relations.”
If you are concerned about the rising costs of fire protection–and you should be–volunteering at the local fire company is a way you can not only make a difference in your community, but it can help keep your taxes down as well.
Regarding the Township’s plan to move forward, the RTK revealed some interesting findings on this subject as well, mostly in comparing the March Slide Show presentation and the Official Presentation. Let’s discuss:
Black Rock’s Mont Clare Station
There is some in-depth discussion over the disposition of the Mont Clare fire station in the March presentation, but this entire discussion is missing from the Official Slide Show and indeed, the only mention is the rather vague:
The following slide, which was included in the March Slide Show, tells the story of the Mont Clare station:
In my personal experience on the Board of Supervisors, the Township was often put in the position of reacting to conflicting messages from within the BRVFC leadership structure. A good example of this dynamic is the Mont Clare Station situation mentioned above, wherein leadership told the Township on multiple occasions in private meetings that they needed help phasing out the Station, only to have other members of leadership publicly call the Mont Clare Station “100% viable.”
Moving Engine 93
One of the biggest challenges presented in the Official Slide show for both Fire and EMS was the geography of our oddly shaped township.
The Coverage maps below were included in the March presentation but were missing from the Official Presentation. I am very familiar with these maps as I am pretty sure they came directly from the Township’s 2014 Fire and EMS study completed by Fire Planning Associates and were prepared at a time when there was still a significant response out of the Mont Clare station. Keep in mind that the “response zones” around the Mont Clare station should not be coded green (this is the meaning of the yellow notation on “needing better maps” on the slide below.)
The map on the left is actually the current coverage map during weekday daytime hours, with the Township’s Engine 93 responding out of the Township’s central Black Rock campus. The map on the right shows coverage with no unit responding from the centralized location.
Recall that one of the policies that the Township is proposing is relocating Engine 93 to the Oaks station until the new centralized building is complete, which realistically won’t be until mid 2019/early 2020, even on an aggressive timeline. If, according to Higgins, these policy decisions are being driven entirely by response times, why would the Township propose moving our centrally located Township engine 93 to house it in the southeast corner of the Township at the Oaks fire station? This does not improve response times and it flies in the face of the geographical challenge laid out in the slide above from the Official Slide Show. In fact, this very point was made was in the March Slide Show:
This policy decision has the potential to make response times worse as it removes the centralized coverage area currently covered by Engine 93, effectively undoing the coverage the Township is currently providing for the recently populated center of the township . With the important stipulation that I wholeheartedly agree that a hybrid Township/Volunteer organization is the best model to pursue, I am unclear about the impetus for the directive to move Engine 93 to the Oaks firehouse at all, even if it is “temporary,” especially since Engine 93’s response times have thus far been proven to be superior to the Volunteers.
Why not wait until the centrally located Fire and EMS building is complete to implement this program, and in the meantime, simply allow the volunteers to respond with Engine 93 out of the Township campus?
Let me first remind my readers that Upper Providence Township currently has a “stipend” program. This program, called the “Volunteer Incentive Program” or VIP, pays an annual amount to each responding volunteer firefighter based on the number of calls and number of firefighters that responded within the Township on an annual basis.
The Township awards an annual lump sum to each of our first responding fire companies, and it is up to each of the individual companies to determine how that money gets distributed to their members. To my knowledge, Upper Providence is the only Township in the area that has this program.
So what is this new “stipend” program?” Good question. When Barker sought clarification on this question at the last meeting, he was quickly shut down by Calci with the admonition to not get “too deep in the weeds” on this policy point. There is no mention of a stipend in the March Slideshow. For details, please stick around after Quizzo.
Qualifications of Fire Fighters
The Requirement for Blackrock firefighters to meet township standards was included in the March Slideshow but is missing from the Official Slideshow.
This issue was also addressed in the March 23 email discussing the slide edits, where it was suggested that Firefighter qualifications be defined. Why was this discussion omitted? I can think of several reasons, all plausible, but none of them transparent.
- Has the Township decided to forgo requiring BRVFC members to meet certain Township standards?
- Was the slide omitted to avoid questions as to what constitutes a qualified fire fighter and how many qualified fire fighters BRVFC has?
Bortnichak’s email discusses including standards and a definition of what a “qualified fire fighter is,” but these discussion points never made it into the Official Slide Presentation.
By the way…
When the BRVFC chief told me that it no longer seemed as if BRVFC had an equal seat at the table in the fall of 2016, I was honest with him: they did not. The Township needed to take the lead. This may be the source of their animosity towards me; I’m not sure and I will probably never know.
But speaking of animosity: as an aside, I noted that the latest BRVFC Fundraiser Flyer mailed into homes this week makes reference to “recent blog posts by certain individuals mistakenly stated that Black Rock has significant cash and does not need additional UPT funding.” Setting aside the rather unprofessional nature of this statement, if there is another blogger that is covering Upper Providence Township, please contact me, as I am happy to pool resources.
Please note: This blog has never made any representations about BRVFC’s reserves. If BRVFC’s reserves are mentioned at all on this blog, it is only through linking statements by BRVFC’s members themselves, either via their newsletter or through Facebook. It has also never been stated on this blog that BRVFC does not need additional UPT funding; on the contrary, if you have received a fund drive mailer from BRVFC, I encourage you to donate.
This blog has, however, on numerous occasions, wondered aloud why the Democrats campaigned against and misrepresented the Township’s new fire funding formula, but then, once elected, did not restore the funding during the 30-day period in which they could re-open the budget. This blog has further pondered why members of BRVFC have thus far neglected to hold the Democrats accountable for this slight. Indeed, the funding formula change is glossed over as “forecasting a reduction in 2018 income” on the BRVFC fundraising flyer. I can only assume that it is far more politically expedient (and less awkward on Quizzo night) to blame “recent blog posts by certain individuals” than to bite the hand that puts you back on equal footing in determining Township fire policy. I get it.
“Objective Recommendation of Staff…?”
As Vagnozzi has repeatedly and validly noted with regard to the Township’s provision of EMS services, the safety of the residents must take precedence over the interests of the organizations providing these services. It would seem, based on the results of the RTK, that not only was the EMS portion of the April 4 public presentation altered from Staff’s original presentation, but the fire services portion was altered by the Democrats as well.
Chairman John Pearson and “his girls” want to avoid responsibility for the new Fire and EMS policy by calling it an “objective recommendation of Staff.” I think it is safe to say that the public presentation of April 4 was changed significantly enough that it cannot be legitimately be called objective or be attributed to Staff. This plan is the Democrats’ plan for providing Fire and EMS services to the Township. Staff’s fingerprints on that April 4 presentation are barely visible.
Should the Township be able to determine the needs of their residents and therefore be permitted to dictate the best way to provide for the safety of its residents?
Or should elected officials defer to their bar buddies to hammer out FEMS policy over beers after Quizzo the service providers to tell the Township the level of service they are willing to provide?
Which option do you think will keep us safer?