The Northwest Fire and Rescue District and Pima County Sheriff's Department are working on an agreement that would add eight to 10 of the district's paramedics to the sheriff's elite SWAT unit - and do so almost entirely at the fire district's expense.
The proposal, which was unanimously approved by the NWFD board June 24 and is expected to be sent this month to the Pima County Board of Supervisors for consideration, comes as the county's SWAT team is so deprived of direct medical support that it has taken to having a state police helicopter fly above some of its riskier operations in case a team member is injured and needs to be evacuated.
Critics of the plan say NWFD taxpayers will end up subsidizing a program that is the responsibility of cash-strapped Pima County. The handful of district residents opposed to the move characterize it as a drain on the fire district's resources that could endanger the safety of district residents. They also express concern about the safety of the paramedics.
Supporters of the agreement - primarily county and district officials - point to the public safety benefits they say all citizens of Pima County will receive. They emphasize that the lives of law enforcement officers are on the line unless something is done to beef-up the dwindling number of medical specialists on the sheriff's Special Weapons and Tactics team.
"Having a tactical medicine provider is imperative in my business," said Lt. Sandy Rosenthal, commander of the sheriff's SWAT unit, in a phone interview. "We're not just walking away with scrapes and bruises in these operations. There's a high risk of gunshot wounds and injuries from explosions. Having that medical care right at the scene gives us a an extreme chance of surviving, as a opposed to just calling an ambulance and hoping for the best."
At the Northwest Fire board meeting, district resident Jim Schuh said he was sympathetic toward the sheriff's department's plight, but was concerned about what it meant for citizens in the district who depend on the paramedics for their day-to-day well-being.
"This is an outright subsidy of the sheriff's department being done on the taxes of the residents of this district," Schuh told the board.
Under terms of the intergovernmental agreement, the county will provide the paramedics with training in SWAT, uniforms and body armor, and an armored vehicle that will be used exclusively by the Northwest paramedics.
The sheriff's department also will train the paramedics in weapons familiarization, although the Northwest employees will not be armed.
At least two paramedics will be available to the sheriff's department at any time. They will operate as usual at their assigned fire stations, but be taken out of the district's service when the SWAT unit is deployed.
The Northwest employees will respond to calls outside the Northwest fire district's boundaries, going anywhere in Pima County that the SWAT team is sent to.
Pima County SWAT conducted 63 operations in 2002 and 56 in the previous year. Rosenthal estimated 90 percent of those deployments were for serving arrests warrants, as opposed to more dangerous and protracted operations such as hostage situations.
On its end, NWFD will pay the salaries of the paramedics during training and deployments, cover their overtime and insurance, provide medical equipment and establish a base station agreement with a local hospital.
The district currently has 45 paramedics to serve the 125,000 people living in the Northwest Fire District.
The paramedics will go through an initial 80 hours of training and be expected to participate in the SWAT unit's ongoing training and drills.
Northwest paramedics are paid between $10.58 and $16.81 per hour, according to district records.
And while the fire district has yet to develop a cost estimate for the plan, just the initial 80 hours of training for 10 paramedics could cost district taxpayers well over $10,000.
NWFD Battalion Chief Doug Emans, who oversees the district's emergency medical technicians, said in an interview he does not believe the proposal will be a drain on district resources.
"Nine paramedics would be the optimal number, because we have three shifts. If the two paramedics go out on a call with the county, we can easily rearrange our staffing so that no truck in the district will be without paramedics," he said. "We do it all the time. We have paramedics and firefighters going out to other jurisdictions quite a bit. We have intergovernmental agreements to help out with hazardous materials calls, wildland fires and a number of other areas."
When asked what benefit Northwest gains from the arrangement, Rosenthal referred the question to the district.
"We have had discussions about the types of reciprocal training we might receive for our people, stuff like arson investigations or internal investigations, but nothing is firm at this point," Emans said.
Both Rosenthal and Emans said that while there is a degree of danger involved in sending the paramedics into SWAT situations, they will not be participating in the most hazardous aspects of the operations.
The medics will not be part of the team tasked with forcing entry into a building, but will instead be stationed with a support team or at a command post that is routinely set up in SWAT operations, Rosenthal said.
Pima County SWAT, which handles the department's most dangerous operations such as hostage situations and the arrests of barricaded criminals, became one of the first SWAT teams in the country when it was established in 1974 and has long been a leader in the development of SWAT.
The county's unit also has been at the forefront in the use of "tactical emergency medical support" and members of the team have trained other agencies nationwide in the highly specialized field, said Todd Burke, a former faculty member of the Law Enforcement Training Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., and a nationally recognized expert on tactical emergency medicine.
The department has even seen one of its former deputies and SWAT doctors, Richard Carmona, go on to become the surgeon general of the United States.
"Pima County has been the model nationwide for the use of tactical emergency medicine and our Surgeon General Richard Carmona continues to be a big proponent of bringing this to police departments nationwide," Burke said.
Carmona's appointment as surgeon general by President Bush last year left the unit with only two deputies trained as tactical medics, and one of those has recently left the team. The sole remaining member of the unit trained in emergency medicine is an older deputy approaching retirement, Rosenthal said.
The county's SWAT unit is composed of 27 tactical officers, seven hostage negotiators and the remaining medical member.
Rosenthal said, whereas in the past, the SWAT team relied on deputies trained as emergency medicine technicians, the unit has decided to move toward using paramedics trained in SWAT.
"I'm a cop, and I can be cross-trained in emergency medicine, but I'm not going to be as good as the person who does it full time. The simple analogy would be if you're going to go to a doctor, are you going to someone who has just been trained or the one that's been doing surgery for five years?" Rosenthal said.
Burke said the vast majority of SWAT units nationwide have switched to using paramedics.
"It's more common, and looking back at my experience of 16 years, it's generally better, to take a medical operator and train them tactically than to take a police operator and train them medically. The most effective member is going to be the one that already has an established background in emergency medicine," Burke said.
The decision to draw paramedics from only Northwest Fire was prompted in part by that change, Rosenthal said.
"This is a big step for us, and it's in its early stages. We'll evaluate how we think its working, and if it's feasible to use paramedics rather than our own deputies, we'll start looking at approaching other fire agencies. At this point, we're taking baby steps and that's why we're only including Northwest. They graciously stepped up to the plate," Rosenthal said.
The only other department approached by the sheriff's department as a source of paramedics was Rural/Metro, and it declined to participate, Rosenthal said.
Chief George Good, a spokesperson for Rural/Metro, said his agency was concerned primarily with insurance and liability issues.
""We had at one time a paramedic serving with Oro Valley (Police Department's) SWAT, but we pulled them off. The paramedic was armed during operations, and we saw that as a risk," Good said. "There's just a lot of liability issues involved with SWAT."
The agreement approved by the Northwest fire Board does not contain any specific clause dealing with liability.
OVPD, which has 15 tactical officers in its SWAT team, now depends on one officer trained as an emergency medical technician, department spokesperson Becky Mendez said.
Tucson Police Department has 40 members on its team with five of them being police officers trained as medics, TPD spokesperson Sgt. Judy Altieri said.
Marana Police Department disbanded its SWAT unit two years ago because it could not meet the standards of a national certification MPD ultimately obtained. Marana now depends on the sheriff's department's SWAT unit for high risk operations.
CHIEF'S RAISE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY
In a process veiled in secrecy, the Northwest Fire and Rescue District Board approved a pay raise for Fire Chief Jeff Piechura June 26 that apparently was identical to the amount Piechura had asked for eight days before - down to the penny.
According to district records, Piechura is believed to have had his base pay raised from $93,870 to $97,870 per year.
Factoring in financial perks such as a performance bonus and tuition benefits, Piechura's package would rise to $110,204.14.
In a memo to the board dated June 18 in which he outlined his accomplishments in the last year, Piechura suggested that his compensation package for 2003-2004 should be $110,204.14.
Specific details of Piechura's pay raise are still unclear. At the end of a one hour and 40 minute meeting held in closed-door executive session, Board President Linda Christopherson announced that Piechura would receive a 5 percent merit pay increase and no cost of living increase or market adjustment. She offered no further details. The estimate of Piechura's new pay rate was obtained by factoring the 5 percent increase into his existing salary and benefits.
The district's attorney, Thomas Benavidez, refused to release the amendment to Piechura's contract when it was requested by the Northwest EXPLORER three days after it was approved by the board.
Benavidez said the amendment had not yet been drafted.
Board members based their decision to raise Piechura's pay primarily on an evaluation of him completed by the board, said Georgeann Hackenbracht, Northwest's administrative services manager. She said the EXPLORER's estimate of Piechura's total increase to $110, 204 matched her understanding of the raise.
Copies of the evaluations obtained from the district do not identify the names of the board members who filled out the evaluations. Instead, the five individual evaluations are numbered.
District officials refused to identify the board members.
Board members were asked to rate Piechura's performance on a variety of topics that allowed for a score ranging from 1 to 5.
Piechura's cumulative score from the board was 4.4, with a 4 indicating he exceeded the district's performance standard, and 5 being an "excellent" rating.
Two of the board members' evaluations only rated Piechura's performance with the pre-printed 1 through 5 number boxes and offered no specific comments.
Two other board members offered a handful of comments that ranged from "sometimes is too 'glib' and makes statements that come back to haunt him and the district" to "I believe the Northwest fire district would not be where it is today without his exceptional leadership."
But the fifth boardmember, identified only as "Boardmember Number Five," provided a four-page account detailing Piechura's accomplishments that covered everything from "he spoke for an hour before the future Forest Services Managers" to providing the exact number of firefighters he hired last year.
Under the section of the evaluation titled "areas requiring improvement in job performance, Boardmember Number Five wrote simply: "none noted."
Piechura was out of town attending to a family emergency and could not be reached for comment.