Could HFD lose its ambulances to privatization?

HOUSTON – In a City of Houston Public Safety and Homeland Security committee meeting Tuesday, Councilman Mike Knox floated the idea of privatizing the city's ambulance service. 

While Knox stopped short of advocating such a move, he said the idea merits further study. His comments drew immediate push-back from both the Houston Professional Fire Firefighters Association and its endorsement for mayor, Councilman Dwight Boykins.

What's the backdrop?

Knox argues that the current system of maintaining a fleet of working fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances is not cost-effective for the city. Tuesday, a report undertaken by Rice University graduate students recommended the addition of five ambulances during peak times. The cost of that equipment alone is approximately $300,000 per ambulance.

The idea of privatizing emergency ambulance service has been discussed before but has never had the support necessary to happen. Knox believes it is now time for a more serious investigation of alternative options. 

He wants to study if it could be more efficient to contract emergency ambulance service with a private company, or perhaps create another department to handle ambulance service. 

"One of the benefits of privatizing is you don't have to invest in equipment or personnel, really," Knox said. 

Can the city do that? 

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association represents the EMS personnel who operate the city's fleet of ambulances. All HFD firefighters are trained EMTs.

HPFFA President Patrick Lancton argues that it would be illegal to privatize ambulance service because of the civil service code.

"You cannot take a classified position and civilize it," Lancton said.

It is unclear whether personnel assigned to ambulance and medic units would be reassigned to other duties. 

What's next? 

Knox said that he will discuss the idea of privatization with fellow council members and the mayor's office. There are no items currently on the city council agenda regarding this matter.