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Police, fire departments react to city budget decision on officers and ambulance

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MADISON, Wis. - Decisions made by Madison’s common council Tuesday night will have implications for the city’s public safety departments next year.

While the police department is appreciative common council voted to add funding for three new officers Tuesday night, Madison fire department officials are disappointed next year’s city budget won’t include funding for a ninth ambulance they say is badly needed.

The far southeast neighborhood is home to the new Station 14, but no ambulance. The station’s Engine 14 provides a paramedic who can respond to medical calls, but can't transport patients to the hospital.

"Once the engine is on scene, then we need an ambulance to complete the process, but if those things aren't falling into place perfectly, your life is in risk in situations like cardiac arrest,” said Cynthia Schuster, public information officer for the fire department.

Schuster said in most places in the city, an ambulance can arrive within nine minutes 90 percent of the time. That’s not the case for those in Station 14’s neighborhood.

"We're able to get an ambulance to you 100 percent of the time within 15 and 20 minutes, but that is way too long,” she said. “On average, we can only get there in under nine minutes 50 percent of the time, and that doesn't meet the mark in terms of the national standards we're trying to meet."

Ambulances must come from elsewhere in the city, which has eight ambulances for more than 250,000 people.

"That means a higher call volume for each shift, less sleep at night because you're just running for 24 hour,” Schuster said. "In a 45-day period from about mid-September to late October, we've run out of ambulances seven times."

The department was hoping for funding for a ninth ambulance, which could have come with three potential budget amendments that also added funding for ten firefighter positions. City alders voted them down Tuesday night -- some saying the positions the amendments offered eliminating in exchange for funding were too important, including a budgeted $200 thousand independent police auditor.

The council did approve an amendment adding three police officers to a budget that previously allocated zero.

"While three is short of what data shows we need, for me it's important to keep moving forward and making positive progress with staffing,” acting Police Chief Vic Wahl said. “Even if it's baby steps, it's important, not only for tangibly the service we're able to provide, but also our workforce and their morale It's been a very challenging year because of staffing needs."

Wahl said data shows the department is nearly 20 patrol officers short even after moving 12 nonpatrol officers, such as neighborhood and gang officers, into patrol positions.

"There's just going to be less service that we're able to provide to the public next year, some of the engagement, outreach, problem solving efforts,” Wahl said.

While Wahl would like more officers, he said three additional positions is a start.

"I'm hopeful next year and in future years we'll be able to move forward,” he said.

The council meets again Wednesday night to discuss additional amendments, including one that would eliminate the budgeted independent police auditor. The council has the opportunity to meet again Thursday night to discuss and pass the budget, as well.

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