Ala. city considers fines for slow ambulance response times

Agencies could be fined from $500 to $2,000 for violations of the response time requirements, or for lacking proper equipment and properly maintained vehicles


Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — A draft ordinance for Decatur that would institute fines for slow ambulance service response times but give the service the option of scheduling non-emergency calls itself is already drawing criticism from City Council members.

The draft emergency medical services ordinance being considered by the City Council would also create an ambulance regulatory board and give more power to the EMS coordinator in overseeing the ambulance service’s compliance with the new ordinance.

The ordinance would also set a five-year term for the ambulance service’s operating license in the city. The ambulance service would have to re-apply for another term with the city. (Photo/First Response Ambulance Service Facebook)
The ordinance would also set a five-year term for the ambulance service’s operating license in the city. The ambulance service would have to re-apply for another term with the city. (Photo/First Response Ambulance Service Facebook)

A committee consisting of Legal Department and Decatur Fire & Rescue representatives worked on the mechanics of the draft ordinance, and Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander wrote it.

The City Council received copies of the draft, and they have been giving private input on the changes they would like to see.

Councilman Charles Kirby has been a vocal advocate for First Response Ambulance Service, which has a monopoly on emergency medical services in the city.

Kirby said Friday he doesn’t like the latest draft because he believes an ordinance regulating the ambulance service is not needed, especially since the state has EMS regulations.

Councilman Billy Jackson called Kirby’s statements “ignorant and inconsiderate. We’re talking life and death, and he doesn’t want to make the ambulance service meet its response times.”

Jackson said he believes a few council members are letting politics get into the ordinance because they’re more interested in helping the ambulance service operated by David Childers than protecting city residents.

“We shouldn’t side with the carrier,” Jackson said. “That shows a lack of compassion for our citizens.

“It’s like if Childers says the sky is purple, we as a council are telling the committee to prove that it’s purple even though we know it’s blue,” Jackson said.

This is the third draft of the ordinance since the committee began working on a new EMS ordinance early last year.

“I think it’s a good progression,” Council President Paige Bibbee said. “I just have a few concerns. Our EMS ordinance is three decades old and it needs to change just as we have several other ordinances that haven’t been touched in decades.”

Jackson said the draft “is moving in the right direction but it hasn’t gone far enough.” He continues to believe a city-run ambulance service is what the city needs, despite the high startup costs.

8-minute response time

Childers, First Response operations manager, said he couldn’t comment on the draft ordinance “because the city hasn’t communicated with me about it. However, myself and my legal committee look forward to sitting down with the city’s legal team and the City Council about the proposed changes.”

Kirby said the city is making First Response follow rules that are more stringent than anywhere else in the country.

“First Response follows state protocol, and there’s all kinds of reporting already being done,” Kirby said. “We’re requiring the ambulance to do things that as a city we’re not requiring of ourselves. We want to tell other people what to do, but we’re not willing to regulate what we (the city) do.”

Under the current ordinance, the ambulance service has to respond when it receives a call-out from Morgan County 911 and be on the scene in 8 minutes on 90 percent of its in-city calls in a month.

First Response rarely meets its response time requirement. It usually falls short at 87 or 88 percent each month, but there have never been any repercussions for this failure. The only possible repercussion in the current ordinance is the City Council pulling the ambulance service’s license to operate in Decatur.

Under the draft ordinance, the company would receive points and it could be fined from $5,00 to $20,000 for violations of the response time requirements, or for lacking proper equipment and properly maintained vehicles.

Alexander said his hope is the fine would get the company officials’ attention so they make the necessary changes. The company can appeal fines.

Childers said he is OK with “reasonable” monetary fines.

“However, everyone involved and all of the moving parts would have to be held to the same standards,” said Childers, referring to Decatur-Morgan Hospital, the Fire Department and Morgan County 911.

Kirby said he believes the fines “are just their way of creating another revenue source."

Fire Chief Tony Grande said the problem is First Response has a monopoly on emergency medical services in the city so there needs to be oversight.

“If you don’t like the pizza at one restaurant, you can try pizza at a different place,” Grande said. “The citizens of Decatur don’t have another option for ambulance services.”

Grande said he hopes whichever ambulance service is working in the city will meet the standards and avoid the fines.

Grande said the Fire Department is judged on the same response time criteria as the ambulance service and consistently meets its requirements because it has eight fire stations spread throughout the city.

Non-emergency calls

The draft ordinance gives First Response one concession. It would allow the ambulance service to schedule non-emergency calls instead of Morgan County 911 doing the scheduling.

The EMS coordinator would oversee the company’s handling of non-emergency calls.

Alexander said “it blows my mind” that an ambulance service would want to handle non-emergency calls because of the cost. This would require a new dispatch system and hiring enough dispatchers to cover 24 hours a day for seven days a week.

However, Childers said handling non-emergency calls “is definitely something we would entertain.”

Jackson said he continues to oppose allowing First Response to handle non-emergency calls. He said he has received too many complaints from the citizens, like one lady who said she waited three hours at the medical office after completing dialysis.

Under the proposed ordinance changes, the EMS committee would be replaced by an ambulance regulatory board consisting of the fire and police chiefs, the Morgan County Emergency Management Agency director and appointees of the council and mayor.

The board would review the EMS coordinator’s actions, financial penalties and approve policy and procedure changes in monthly meetings.

Bibbee doesn’t like the idea of a board making these big decisions. She said it should be a panel similar to the Planning Commission that includes the two chiefs, the EMA director and possibly a representative of the hospital and the ambulance service.

The panel would then make recommendations for consideration by the City Council, Bibbee said.

“I’m concerned that it’s taking some of the council’s ability away and it could get political,” Bibbee said. “This panel is different from every other board because this is about the safety of our residents and visitors.”

The ordinance would also set a five-year term for the ambulance service’s operating license in the city. The ambulance service would have to re-apply for another term with the city.

Alexander said First Response would be considered in the fourth year of the term so it would have one year left before it would have to submit the required paperwork for another term.

Councilman Chuck Ard said he had not seen the draft ordinance so he could not comment on it. Councilwoman Kristi Hill could not be reached for comment.

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©2019 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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