Reversing course: Denison elects to privatize EMS

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Denison Fire Rescue Chief Gregg Loyd speaks before the Denison City Council regarding an extension to its contract with LifeNet for EMS services. Officials said that the contract will help the department continue services through the COVID-19 pandemic.

City expected to contract with LifeNet for all future EMS

Denison is signaling that it will back away from plans to keeps its EMS services in house, and instead will use an outside firm for the foreseeable future. Fire Chief Gregg Loyd made the announcement of the department's plans to stick with EMS provider LifeNet EMS last week during the city's annual budget retreat.

The announcement by the Loyd marks the latest shift in direction for the city and Denison Fire Rescue amid concerns of other departments harvesting qualified candidates to move south with the promise of higher wages. In 2019, the city announced plans to outsource its EMS service to an outside provider, but almost immediately backed away from these plans following intense public pushback.

Since that time, city officials said it has been training the latest class for the department, but they encountered setbacks.

"It's been a long time coming, and I am happy we got here," Loyd said Friday.

The recommendation to stay with LifeNet followed a vote by a committee that was formed last year to determine a long-term direction for the department and its EMS services, Loyd said. While some members of the council voiced their support for the arrangement last week, no official vote by the council has been held yet.

The push for a definitive decision came following continued concerns of poaching of employees by other cities that could offer higher compensation than Denison. By training recruits in both EMS and firefighting, Denison was making them attractive to competing departments, Loyd said.

No departments accused of poaching were named by the fire chief.

"They would harvest our employees almost as soon as they got trained and took them south for more money," Loyd said.

Despite the worries of losing employees, the latest class of recruits has mostly stayed with the city. Of the nine employees who were most recently recruited into the department, only one has left for a job with another department, Loyd said.

"He didn't spend one day on assignment," Loyd spoke of the one recruit.

During his comments to the council Friday, Loyd described the last two years under a temporary contract as a trial to see what service would look under LifeNet. However, city leadership previously said the agreement was meant to be temporary until in-house services could be resumed.

"The plan is to eventually transition out of LifeNet," then-City Manager Jud Rex said in January 2020. "When we get our staffing to a point where we can continue the exceptional service that we’re providing right now through partnering with LifeNet, we will discontinue that.

"It was planned to be temporary, and that is still the plan. We just want to make sure we staff up before we end that partnership."

The Denison fire department is unveiling its latest tool to fight fires across the city.  The new $1.4 million ladder truck will replace another aging vehicle that has been within the department for nearly 20 years, but is reaching the end of its useful life. The city expected to have the vehicle on the roads of Denison in early 2020, however the COVID-19 pandemic delayed constructionof the vehicle and travel restrictions kept  city officials from inspecting and accepting the vehicle until October.

Early talks of outsourcing

The city first  discussed outsourcing its EMS service some time around early 2019 when the topic came up during budget discussions. At the time, Loyd said the change would alleviate some of the issues the department was having due to vacancies in the department due to outflow. However, department officials noted that Denison Fire Rescue had left some of these positions vacant in anticipation of the change over to a private firm.

“It puts us in a difficult situation to manage,” Loyd said. “They (firefighters) are getting so much of it (overtime), they don’t want to work. We’re not in any critical place yet. In an effort to make sure we don’t get there, we need to do something with the numbers. As soon as the decision is made, if you tell them it will be over in two months, they will see the end and suck it up.”

These early plans led to significant outcry by members of the Denison community who wanted to keep service in house under the city of Denison itself. These concerns led city officials to reconsider outsourcing and the city announced in May 2019 that it would instead focus on recruiting candidates to fill the vacancies. The first class has 12 members, but only nine  ultimately made it through training.

“There is a sense of pride in the fire department,” Rex said. “We should certainly share that as well. We want to continue that. (We) don’t want to change, necessarily, our model for that high level of service and that pride in the fire department.”

Members of Denison Fire Rescue manually fill a truck with water during winter storms last month. The city is looking for ways to prevent future damage similar to that seen during storms last month.

Denison courts LifeNet for temporary service

It was over the following summer that the city announced a temporary partnership with LifeNet to provide services during the interim as the next group of recruits were trained. The news of LifeNet coming to Denison came out after the firm posted a job listing for services in the city.

“This is something that has been planned,” Denison Mayor Janet Gott said in July 2019. “It is not an outsourcing of our EMS. You would liken this to using a temp agency. We are in the process of hiring applicants who tested in early June.

"We have another test this month. Our goal is to get the department up to full manning by August. It takes several months to get a paramedic certified.”

By January 2020, training of the latest class was underway through accelerated training courses taught at Grayson College. However, the training a certification process hit a roadblock last spring with the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. 

“Everything has gone quiet due to COVID," Loyd said in August 2020. "Even the cities that have vacancies that can afford to pay have dropped demand dramatically. Everyone is just locked down and waiting to see what they can do.”

Through much of the 2020, training and testing centers were closed due to the pandemic, which delayed the process even further. At the time, officials said the city was down seven firefighters and two captains.

“We are still running about nine positions short right now and that is somewhat intentional as we still have a contract with LifeNet to provide our EMS service,” Rex said in early August. “So basically what we are going to need to do for the future is to extend that contract with LifeNet until we can get to the other side of the pandemic and look at filling those positions.

“It has been difficult to recruit during the pandemic and therefore we are likely to extend our contract with LifeNet into the next fiscal year.”

Issues with testing centers closing of being restricted during the pandemic.

“It (recruitment) will continue to be a challenge,” Loyd said. “We live so close to the Metroplex and they show no signs of letting up on that completely competitive market.”

It was around this time that a guidance committee for the department was formed. Loyd would not rule out a continued relationship with LifeNet was one of the options being discussed.

“Right now we just simply don’t know and we are just taking it one step at a time to get through the pandemic and returning to a level of normalcy,” he said.

Council response to continued LifeNet service

During the budget retreat various members of the council voiced their thoughts on the proposed change over to outsourced EMS with Mayor Janet Gott appearing in favor of the proposal. Gott noted that the change will save the city in ambulance services, which come at notable cost. She also noted that the change would allow the city to save on the cost of said vehicles.

Council Member J C Doty expressed some concern with how LifeNet employees have interacted with residents of Denison. Loyd acknowledged an incident during the COVID-19 pandemic where multiple LifeNet employees responded to a call for service while not wearing face masks.  The resident then alerted the city about their concerns from the interaction.

Loyd said the city spoke with LifeNet officials and the concerns were addressed. He described the incident as an unfortunate mistake that has since been resolved.

The Denison fire department is unveiling its latest tool to fight fires across the city.  The new $1.4 million ladder truck will replace another aging vehicle that has been within the department for nearly 20 years, but is reaching the end of its useful life. The city expected to have the vehicle on the roads of Denison in early 2020, however the COVID-19 pandemic delayed constructionof the vehicle and travel restrictions kept  city officials from inspecting and accepting the vehicle until October.

Future concerns from a LifeNet contract

Loyd noted that the change to LifeNet will have ramification outside the city itself. This could include how calls are handled in unincorporated portions of the county.

Currently, Denison is the second highest provider of mutual aid — following Sherman —for the county. Loyd said he has had conversations with county officials about what service could look like with LifeNet potentially service as a provider for the county EMS.

"Mayor Gott and I had an informal discussion on June 11 regarding Denison's plans moving forward to partner with LifeNet as the city's EMS provider," Grayson County Judge Bill Magers said via email. "Grayson County reviews its Fire/EMS plans and its ongoing partnerships annually as part of the budget process. As we do each year, we will consider options and continue to provide Grayson County citizens with fire protection and emergency medical services."