Mich. FFs say private ambulances frequently unavailable after merger

Mobile Medical Response officials disputed claims by Traverse City firefighters that service has worsened


Jordan Travis
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Firefighters in Traverse City are concerned the city's outside emergency medical services provider is increasingly leaving them without backup.

Leadership for Mobile Medical Response denied any drop in service levels since the company took over for North Flight EMS. But city Fire Chief Jim Tuller said he's investigating whether the company is meeting its agreement with the city, and Grand Traverse County 911's director noticed issues as well since MMR and North Flight EMS merged in December.

Traverse City firefighters said a fire department ambulance is transporting patients more frequently following a merger of the city's primary private ambulance provider.
Traverse City firefighters said a fire department ambulance is transporting patients more frequently following a merger of the city's primary private ambulance provider. (Photo/Traverse City Fire Department)

"So there's some growing pains with that transition, and I think that (MMR is) still going through those," said county 911 Director Jason Torrey.

Both Traverse City Fire Department and MMR ambulances respond to medical calls in the city, as previously reported. City paramedics treat anyone who needs it until MMR shows up. The provider transports patients to the hospital, with TCFD as backup when MMR is not available.

Jacob Steichen, a TCFD firefighter paramedic and Firefighters Association Local 646 president, said that's happening more often since the merger in December.

"Our ambulance is being used more frequently than before," he said. "We're on pace to double the transports we provided last year if the stats stay the same."

The fire department transported patients to the hospital 32 times in 2020 Tuller said.

Since January, the department already has done 11 transports, Steichen said. That's because MMR ambulances weren't available to take them.

The department's there to serve as a safety net when needed, but transporting patients can pull firefighters away from other calls, Steichen said — fires, car crashes, water rescues and so forth. It's a problem he wants addressed soon, and said it could lead to tragedy if it continues to worsen.

Jason MacDonald, vice president of MMR operations, said the company is providing the same level of service as before the merger.

MMR Northwest Operations Manager Paul Owens echoed this. He was with North Flight EMS for nearly 30 years, including around 20 in management and the last three as general manager.

"We haven't changed our deployment model in the Traverse City area at all, meaning we have the same amount of staffed ambulances that we had when it was North Flight EMS," he said.

The Saginaw-based nonprofit's licensing requires at least one ambulance be available for emergency calls if others are handling transfers, so inter-hospital transfers aren't a problem, McDonald said.

Tuller said he's researching the availability issue. He's noticed a potential difference in response times since MMR took over in December, and in responses to Priority Three incidents — they're technically non-emergencies like sprained ankles.

He's planning to compare city data with that from the EMS service provider to see if MMR is falling short of its agreement with the city, including that an ambulance arrives to Priority One calls — emergencies that are life-threatening or potentially so — within nine minutes, 90 percent of the time.

MacDonald said the company's providing "exceptional" response times to the Traverse City area.

Steichen said he's heard staffing problems at MMR could be to blame for unfilled shifts.

Some North Flight EMS employees didn't stay with the company following the merger, and MMR has faced staffing challenges that's made it hard to fill all shifts, MacDonald said. The COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame, as is a nationwide shortage of EMS professionals. But MacDonald said staffing levels will more or less be back to past levels after the company brings on 10 people, most full time, to the Traverse City area — MMR also serves Acme, Garfield, Long Lake and Whitewater townships in Grand Traverse County, with Long Lake looking to establish its own EMS service soon.

Tracking how often ambulances aren't available to respond to calls in the city isn't easy, Torrey said. But he thinks city firefighters' frustrations are justified.

The issue predates the North Flight EMS and MMR merger — any department can get overloaded — and Torrey said he wasn't certain if it has gotten worse. But it doesn't seem to have improved, either.

He also wants to work with the company to improve the speed and efficiency of its dispatch, as ambulances aren't always being assigned to emergency calls in the county in a timely manner.

"They could certainly make a lot of improvements in having more units available for calls and finding efficient ways to communicate and designate the proper unit to respond to those calls," he said.

MacDonald said there are no delays in dispatching ambulances, and that nothing has changed in the dispatching process since the merger other than operations moving to Saginaw from North Flight EMS's dispatch in Traverse City.

Owens also said he's seen no dispatch issues save a few outliers, like personnel with dead radio batteries or just not hearing a call.

Grand Traverse County 911 also wants information on what ambulances MMR has available at a given time and where, information Torrey said dispatchers had prior to the merger but no longer — Owens said that's in the works and will take time to implement.

Traverse City's six-month contract with MMR to provide those EMS services following the merger is a trial period of sorts as city officials consider a future, longer-term deal with the company, City Manager Marty Coburn said.

At the same time, the city's studying the possibility of turning its fire department into a transport agency, Colburn said — consulting firm TriData's report to the city showed it would be a pricey undertaking, at up to $500,000 for two new ambulances and as much as $1,548,000 for 11 more hires.

Colburn said city staff are examining different aspects of that possible change since hearing TriData's report in December, and he hopes to see their findings by early summer — he couldn't say whether that would come before MMR's current contract is up.

MacDonald said the company is willing to address any issues brought to them, and said Traverse City residents shouldn't be concerned with their EMS service.

"We believe that our performance is stellar," he said.

Torrey said he believes the public should always challenge the services they're getting.

"They should always challenge that in any public safety aspect to make sure they're getting the best level of service they can," he said.

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(c)2021 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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