Penalties for Ala. EMS retracted after automated response time calculator questioned

First Response Ambulance Service in Decatur disputed the computer-based system's calculations that it had fallen short of meeting response time requirements


Marian Accardi
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

DECATUR, Ala. — A city official on Tuesday said penalties assessed against Decatur's only ambulance service are being retracted after a 2-2 vote by the City Council in the first appeal it's heard since passing an ordinance that allows fines for failure to meet response-time requirements.

The Ambulance Regulatory Board voted unanimously in February to impose a $10,000 financial penalty and 10 points against First Response Ambulance Service for failure to meet response-time requirements in the city’s police jurisdiction during the fourth quarter last year. Accumulation of 26 points over two years can result in revocation of the certificate to operate.

After about two hours of discussion Monday night — followed by a motion by Councilman Chuck Ard to uphold the ARB’s decision — the council ended with a tie vote. Councilwoman Kristi Hill was participating remotely, but disconnected before the vote. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“The financial penalty and points will be retracted,” EMS Coordinator Ashley England said Tuesday. He said First Response and Decatur Fire and Rescue will both present their response times for June at the next ARB meeting on July 14 and second quarter response times on Aug 11. “We’ll see what the times look like then, and we’ll go from there.”

Meanwhile, David Childers, the director of operations for First Response, said the company last month submitted a request for the re-issuance of the certificate of public necessity and convenience that allows it to operate in the city.

“We would like to continue to serve the residents here in the city of Decatur as we have since June 26, 2012,” Childers said Tuesday. He maintained that “we made it on scene within the amount of time the ordinance states and we proved we made it on scene.”

Much of Monday night's debate centered on whether the automated system Morgan County 911 uses to calculate the ambulance service's response times was accurate.

Childers said the ambulance service made a mistake in 2015 when it requested that a computer-based auto-arrive system of reporting arrival times by GPS be used, instead of the previous method of verbally reporting arrivals by radio. At the time, he said, he was unaware of the “inconsistencies” with the auto-arrive system.

The city requires First Response to respond to the scene of 90% of 911-generated emergency calls in eight minutes or less in the city limits and 12 minutes or less in the police jurisdiction, a 1½-mile area outside the city limits. The ordinance that took effect in September made no change in the response-time requirements, but added fines and points for failure to meet them.

Council President Paige Bibbee joined Ard in voting to uphold the ARB decision imposing penalties, while Councilmen Billy Jackson and Charles Kirby voted against.

At the appeal hearing, Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander told council members that England notified First Response that of 82 calls within the police jurisdiction during the fourth quarter of 2019, 70 were on time, for a response rate of 85.4%.

Doug Hargett, an attorney representing First Response, disputed the response times of three calls — to Mud Tavern, Starky and Norris Mill roads — saying that drivers “verbally arrived on the scene,” by responding by radio, within 12 minutes.

When Ard asked if there’s a problem with the auto-arrive system, Morgan County 911 Director Jeanie Pharis said it’s “a computer-based system and is not 100% foolproof,” and there are possible discrepancies with any type of system.

Alexander said that if First Response officials believe there’s an error in a response time, they can request an exception. He cited First Response’s successful appeal of 15 seconds on one call, at an ARB meeting in May.

“We pulled back as soon as (First Response) showed us there was a problem with the computer,” he said.

“We’re not here to punish,” Ard said before the council vote. “This isn’t about punishment.” But he noted that minutes passed on those calls in question “before wheels got rolling.”

'Inconsistencies'

Jackson said he was not convinced the penalties assessed against the ambulance service were fair.

“I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a fan of First Response,” said Jackson, adding that he’s heard “too many complaints” in the community about the service. But, he said, there were “too many inconsistencies here” for him to support the measure to uphold the ARB decision.

“At some point I want us to move completely away from this and run emergency transport through our fire department,” Jackson said. “I think it would be more efficient. I do want to move in a different direction.”

Bibbee said she was prepared to reduce the fine or find another compromise Monday night. She said First Response has had plenty of time to rescind its 2015 request to go with the auto-arrive system in calculating response times, if there are issues with it.

“I want the best for the city of Decatur,” Bibbee said. “I want 911 for your sake, my sake, the residents’ sake to be the best it can be.”

Childers on Tuesday said that response times for the second quarter that will be presented to the ARB are: for April, 94% in the city limits and 78.6% in the police jurisdiction; for May, 93.3% in the city limits and 100% in the police jurisdiction; and for June, 95.4% in the city and 96.2% in the police jurisdiction. For the quarter, the figures show 94.23% in the city and 91.6% in the police jurisdiction, he said. Those response times would comply with the ordinance.

Alexander had asked the council to uphold the ARB decision. In observing the ambulance situation over the last 10 years, “it is a fact that when they were in competition with DEMSI (an ambulance service that has since gone out of business), they were able to make the times,” he said. “It is a fact that when they realized we were serious about enforcing (the ordinance), they were able to make the times."

“I think any action by this council to just wink at the violation would let them know that we’re not serious about it and we may never get compliance with the time standard again,” he said.

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©2020 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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