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Long Beach can save money and not risk safety

A view of the Long Beach boardwalk near

A view of the Long Beach boardwalk near Lincoln Boulevard on Monday, March 9, 2015. The City of Long Beach is planning to use FEMA funds to build six new buildings along the boardwalk by this summer. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Long Beach is one of only two Long Island municipalities with professional fire departments, and there's justification for its paid force. What's not justified is paying a fortune to firefighters to deliver health care that could be provided in a far less costly way.

The city is densely populated and the area is rife with high-rises that make professional fire protection prudent, in conjunction with the city's large volunteer corps. But most of the department's calls are for ambulance and EMS services, and workers responding are highly paid firefighters also certified to do EMS work. These unionized firefighters on average cost the city $150,000 a year each, including benefits. But an employee hired only for ambulance response, with no firefighting responsibility, would cost the city an average of $70,000 a year.

So the city wants to split the force, taking it from 24 firefighter/EMTs to 12 for each job, over a period of years. City officials say that would eventually save $1 million a year, significant in a financially pressed city with a budget of about $84 million. Firefighters and their supporters are furious at the move and demand the department keep running as it always has. But it can't, and it shouldn't.

A study by the Washington, D.C.-based ICMA Center for Public Safety Management states the move would increase the quality of medical service by demanding the highest paramedic classification for ambulance workers. Most of the firefighters don't currently have that designation. Each shift would still be staffed with three firefighters and two EMS workers, as they are now. Paying health professionals what health professionals earn, rather than what firefighters earn, is a reasonable way to save money without compromising safety.