Ala. hospital's EMS not penalized for response time violation; rival sees favoritism

Decatur Morgan Hospital missed a response time requirement while responding to over half of first-quarter calls and working to hire crewmembers


Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — The Ambulance Regulatory Board will not penalize Decatur Morgan Hospital's new ambulance service for failing to meet the city's response-time requirements in the first quarter of this year, a decision its former competitor said shows favoritism.

Over the three-month period, Decatur Morgan responded to 88% of calls in the police jurisdiction within 13 minutes, shy of the 90% required by the city ordinance. That ordinance calls for a five-point penalty and $5,000 fine for the infraction. The police jurisdiction is an area that extends 1 1/2 miles beyond the city limits.

Lt. Lyle Willits, of Decatur Fire & Rescue, reported the violation Tuesday to the Ambulance Regulatory Board on behalf of city EMT Director Chris Phillips.

Willits said the hospital appealed the penalties, and the ARB voted against assessing the penalties after hearing the hospital's reasons for falling short.

Assessed points accumulate and can eventually lead to revocation of the certificate to operate. Fines grow with consecutive quarterly violations.

Within the city limits, Willits said, the ambulance service responded to 90% of calls within nine minutes, meeting the ordinance requirement.

This was the hospital's second appeal of potential penalties. The hospital and First Response both had appeals upheld by the ARB in December for the fourth quarter of 2021.

Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander said the ARB vote ends the matter, so it doesn't proceed to the City Council.

In making the appeal, hospital Director of EMS Tyler Stinson told the board that the city had competing ambulance services for most of the first quarter. On March 15, First Response gave the city 25 hours' notice that it was shutting down Decatur operations.

Stinson said there were 57 calls in the police jurisdiction in January, February and March. The hospital had to run more than half of the calls even though it was the new ambulance service, he said.

"We were up-staffing more than we were required to do and First Response was struggling just to run its calls," Stinson said.

He said his ambulance service's performance improved after First Response shut down its Decatur operations.

"Looking at March, we had a 91 in the city and a 91 in the PJ after the first of the month," Stinson said.

Stinson said the hospital's ambulance service has gradually improved response times since January. In April, it responded to 94% of in-city calls within nine minutes and 100% of police jurisdiction calls within 13 minutes.

ARB member Lilly Pike said "it's only fair" to uphold the hospital's appeal, especially when the fledgling service was carrying so much of the load during the first three months of the year.

Fire Chief Tracy Thornton, who serves as the ARB chairman, said the hospital's ambulance service faced trying circumstances during the first quarter.

Thornton said the hospital's month-to-month improvement leaves him confident the hospital's service will meet response times going forward.

First Response owner David Childers didn't attend the meeting but said Wednesday that he watched the online feed of the gathering. He said the city and the ARB "did not follow the city ordinance" in the way it handled the hospital's violation and appeal.

Childers, who has a federal lawsuit pending against the hospital alleging that the city damaged First Response by showing the hospital favoritism, said the ARB should only have decided if there was a violation, with any appeal going to the City Council.

"At our appeal hearing in December, Council President (Jacob) Ladner made it very clear that the council expects 'the city ordinance to be followed to the T,'" Childers said. "Yet, we've got a board that continually undermines the power of the City Council. The ARB is stopping everything before it gets to the council."

The ambulance ordinance gives the ARB final discretion on whether to impose points as a penalty for violations and authorizes appeals to the ARB of financial penalties exceeding $1,000. The City Council's involvement in the appeal process comes only if the ARB denies an appeal of a fine exceeding $1,000, or if the ARB recommends revocation of the certificate to operate.

Childers said it appears the ARB isn't allowing appeals to get to the council "because it doesn't want to penalize the hospital."

Both the city and the hospital have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit by First Response. Written arguments for and against the motions were filed through March 25, but federal District Court Judge Liles Burke has not issued a ruling.

Thornton and Alexander said they're not concerned with Childers or his accusations of favoritism, especially since they feel the city was lenient toward Childers and First Response for a number of years.

Alexander said they gave Childers the same kind of adjustment period after the ambulance ordinance passed in 2019.

Thornton said the company also got a number of breaks, including when the City Council upheld two First Response appeals.

First Response also was assessed $15,900 in fines for not putting enough ambulances on the road in January, February and early March. The city did not push for payment after the company closed its Decatur operations.

Thornton said First Response was the main reason the hospital service didn't make its required times in the police jurisdiction.

"They didn't put enough trucks on the road and they stayed at one location so the hospital would have to cover a larger area," Thornton said.

Thornton said Childers' comments are "just something he had to say to make himself look better."

Thornton emphasized that he and the ARB "will enforce the ordinance equally. It doesn't matter which ambulance service is serving the city. But, anytime we do anything, we have to look at the whole picture and there were a lot of things that happened that were beyond the hospital's control."

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(c)2022 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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