MATTOON — Nearly one month has passed since the city ended the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service on July 25.
The two private ambulance providers operating in Mattoon have been adding to their staff and fleets as they adjust to handling all of the calls for emergency medical services. The private providers have been assisted at times by the Mattoon Fire Department, which has retained its advanced life support equipment, and by the Charleston Fire Department's ambulance service.
On Tuesday, the Mattoon City Council heard concerns from a woman whose 22-month-old son had an epileptic seizure last weekend at a time when the nearest available ambulance service was out of Sullivan.
The number of calls for emergency medical services in Mattoon totals well more than 300 per month on average, according to fire department records. Fire Chief Tony Nichols said there were 13 times between July 25 and Aug. 18 that the Coles County 911 system needed to dispatch other ambulance services to help while the two private providers, Dunn's Ambulance and Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service, were busy with other calls.
Nichols said the Mattoon Fire Department's calls for backup included needing to use its advanced life support equipment at the scenes of two vehicle crashes and at one medical emergency. He said Charleston Fire Department ambulances transported three patients. He said Neoga or Sullivan ambulances were dispatched a total of three to four times, but were called off en route.
"I know it's new to everybody, but I hope it gets better," Nichols said of the change in ambulance call coverage in Mattoon. Nichols added that ambulance providers in Mattoon are still helping transfer patients from Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center to higher level trauma centers, although the health center also has Abbott EMS ambulances assist with transfers if available.
Casey Schmitz, operations manager for Dunn's, said the Taylorville-based company has been keeping three ambulances in operation in Mattoon during peak hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and two overnight. Schmitz said Dunn's goal is to soon have three ambulances available 24 hours per day in Mattoon.
Schmitz said Dunn's has been hiring more staff, but competition for applicants in the region has increased now that Abbott EMS is providing an ambulance service in Effingham and that Horizon Health's Paris Community Hospital has started its own ambulance service.
Dunn's and Mitchell-Jerdan are working together to try to ensure that there are always at least two ambulances available in Mattoon while still transferring patients for Sarah Bush Lincoln, Schmitz said.
"They are doing everything they can to make sure everything runs smoothly," Schmitz said, adding that the Dunn's and Mitchell-Jerdan ambulance crews are dedicated to helping their patients. "We are going to find the problems as they come up, we are going to fix them, and we are going to continue to do what we do."
Resident Alissa MacDonald told the city council on Tuesday that her 22-month-old son, Jace, collapsed last weekend at home due to an epileptic seizure. MacDonald said she and her husband were already aware from the scanner that Mattoon had no available ambulances at the time and neither did Charleston. She said they later found out that the nearest available ambulance was 22 minutes away in Sullivan.
MacDonald said she is a neonatal intensive care unit nurse and her husband is a critical care paramedic, so they were able to provide medical assistance for their child. However, she asked the council to consider what could happen to other families during such situations or to people in other emergencies, such as a shooting, if an ambulance is not readily available to help them.
"This town, in the wake of a school shooting (Sept. 20 at Mattoon High School), voted to move forward with eliminating the MFD ambulance system," MacDonald said. "My own stepchildren were in that building last fall. And if God forbid they would have been injured, it would be my expectation that help be there immediately. One would think that after such a tragedy our city council would take action to increase safety in this city, not take it away."
City officials set the July 25 end date after the council voted on July 18, 2017 to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service as a cost-cutting measure. City officials have said that the fire department's ambulance service lost money and duplicated the work of private providers. The firefighters union countered that the department's service generated needed revenue for the city and provided essential ambulance coverage for Mattoon.