New England ambulance company adds 300 jobs amid COVID-19
Alert Ambulance Service Inc. has hired dozens of laid-off nurses and paramedics since March, nearly doubling its workforce
The Herald News, Fall River, Mass.
FALL RIVER, Mass. — "We're a healthier company," Thomas Carroll said with nary a hint of irony.
The president of Paramedic Systems Inc., parent company of Alert Ambulance Service Inc. of Fall River, says a $1.9 million Payroll Protection Program loan from the federal government in 2020 spurred job growth within the privately held company.
Carroll said the workforce at Alert Ambulance Service has nearly doubled during the past 10 months from 350 workers before the onslaught of COVID-19 to at least 650 employees since it was declared a national emergency last March.
As many as 220 of those new hires have been registered nurses. Carroll said many of those RNs were previously laid off at hospitals and clinics.
"We took a lot of out of work nurses and put them back to work," he said.
Most of the other newer employees who now make up the company's COVID Response Team are paramedics.
Carroll says the private ambulance industry overall has seen a drop of as much as 40 to 50 percent in calls for service beginning last spring — with hospitals cancelling elective surgeries, the number of 911 medical emergency calls dropping off and many motorists staying off roads as they began working remotely from home.
He said hospitals in particular, but also agencies that provide adult day care services, have struggled financially as result of the pandemic.
"All hospitals took a significant hit," Carroll said.
Ambulance companies across the country had to invest in personal protection equipment. They also had to deal with the fact that some of their workers were going into quarantine, and that many people in the general population were avoiding hospital visits and were reluctant to call an ambulance unless absolutely necessary.
But Carroll says Alert Ambulance Service was able to weather the storm and grow by creating its COVID Response Team — which led to some high profile COVID-19 testing contracts, most notably in conjunction with the Rhode Island Department of Health.
"It really is completely different from traditional EMS (Emergency Medical Services). We did a 180-degree turn," said Robert Araujo, the company's chief operating officer.
Joseph Moss, president of Alert Ambulance Service and an emergency medical technician, said the PPP loan was forgiven after the company met the criteria laid out by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
He says this included maintaining an equivalent number of workers as compared to two months before the coronavirus pandemic.
Moss says 80 to 90 percent of the nearly $2 million PPP loan was used for company payroll expenses: "We're a payroll heavy business," he explained.
He says while Alert was able to avert layoffs, it also had to contend with a small number of employees who quit for fear of contracting the highly contagious coronavirus — which to date has been linked to more than 14,000 fatalities in Massachusetts and nearly 2,200 deaths in Rhode Island.
Moss said before applying for the PPP loan he qualified for and received a $150,000 SBA 30-year Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which unlike the PPP loan cannot be forgiven.
Moss and Carroll said Alert Ambulance continues to operate eight satellite locations and provide ambulance services ranging from Bristol and Wakefield in Rhode Island to New Bedford, Attleboro and Chicopee.
The company does ambulance runs in the greater Fall River region from out of its corporate headquarters and garage on Wilson Road, but not within the city proper where the fire department provides all ambulance and EMS services.
Moss and Carroll said with the PPP loan covering payroll obligations, Alert Ambulance was able to invest in equipment and additional vehicles so that it could transform its business model into a hybrid of ambulance service and a provider of COVID-19 testing.
"We're fortunate to have had this alternative business model," Carroll said during an interview with Moss and Araujo in the company's administrative suite on Bedford Street.
He said Alert Ambulance continues to hire an average of as many as 10 new employees per week for positions ranging from nurses, program supervisors and managers to EMT workers and courier drivers.
Carroll says despite the company's growth, absenteeism remains a problem, with employees sometimes calling in sick after either they or their children have tested positive for the coronavirus or have been in close contact with someone who has.
"It affects every business," he said. "And it's why people are afraid to go back to work or school."
Moss says about 30 percent of the company's staff at some point either has tested positive for the coronavirus or have been out due to exposure to someone who has.
But he said contact tracing has shown that 95 percent of them are being exposed or infected outside the workplace.
The company says when its COVID Response Team, or CRT, was launched last year it consisted of four mobile units and a dozen staff members.
By mid-December it said there were an additional 200 employees and a fleet of 20 mobile units being dispatched from office locations in New Bedford and Warwick.
Alert Ambulance says it also has a fleet of at least 22 Class 1 ambulances and two dozen wheelchair vans throughout its network in southeastern Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Carroll says the company signed a contract with the Rhode Island Department of Health last April to provide mass COVID-19 testing in both skilled and non-skilled nursing facilities as well as congregate living facilities.
He said Alert's CRT since then has performed or facilitated thousands of nasal swabs in all 96 skilled nursing sites in the Ocean State as part of the state's "surveillance and outbreak" testing model.
Carroll says within the next two weeks Alert's Coronavirus Response Team will also become involved in administering COVID-19 vaccinations in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
"The vaccines are in stock and we've been approved," he said adding that vaccination sites "will be popping up everywhere."
Carroll says Alert's CRT is still involved with CVS Health as part of a rapid testing site in Pawtucket that utilizes a University of Rhode Island mobile health trailer, and that since June it has cooperated with Brown University at multiple Stop & Shop sites in Rhode Island.
He says Alert provides testing services on demand to businesses in both Rhode Island and Fall River, including in the city's industrial park, and since Nov. 30 has taken over COVID testing operations at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Carroll also said that Alert's CRT has provided testing services for long-term nursing facilities in New Bedford, among them Savoy Nursing & Rehabilitation Center and the New Bedford Jewish Convalescent Home.
One of Alert Ambulance's more ambitious projects has been the recent introduction of a monoclonal antibody treatment program at Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls in cooperation with Brown University and the National Guard.
Individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, who are either 65 or older or at least 55 with certain medical conditions, are eligible for the one-hour infusions, which are intended to relieve symptoms and help prevent COVID-related illnesses such as pneumonia.
Carroll said his 77-year-old mother-in-law, who previously tested positive for the coronavirus, took the monoclonal antibody infusion and afterward returned home and said that her symptoms had diminished.
Moss, whose uncle John Moss founded Paramedic Systems Inc. in 1986, and who still owns the Alert Ambulance company, said BankFive of Fall River was an invaluable partner in assisting the company apply and qualify for the $1.9 million PPP loan.
Banks that provide PPP loans to businesses are paid processing fees by the Small Business Administration.
Carroll, 60, says he began working for Paramedic Systems Inc. in 1988, one year before John Moss, who originally hailed from Rochester, N.Y., bought the Fairhaven-based Alert Ambulance Service when it had four vehicles and a dozen employees.
He said Moss moved the ambulance business, which was Rhode Island's first private ambulance company, to Fall River's Corky Row neighborhood, where for five years it operated on Fifth Street not far from Vic's Car Wash.
Carroll says Moss bought the former Romac Industries building at 1290 Wilson Road in 1995, which still functions as corporate headquarters for Alert Ambulance Service.
"We've become ingrained in the city through the years," Carroll said. " Fall River's a great city. And the Fairhaven to Fall River area is the cradle of our existence."
(c)2021 The Herald News, Fall River, Mass.