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MATTOON -- The City Council on Tuesday ratified new regulations for private ambulance services and heard several concerns regarding the scheduled July 25 end of the fire department's ambulance service.

Top fire department officials questioned whether the city is ready to switch over all ambulance calls to private services. Representatives from one of the two current private services, Dunn's Ambulance, said they will be ready but delays for this switch have made it difficult to hire crews. A representative for a possible third service, Abbott EMS, sought more information about the application process.

The city has revised its regulations in preparation for the July 25 switch. The new regulations include the requirement that ambulances must arrive at the scene of advanced life support calls within eight minutes of being dispatched. Ambulance services must report this data to the city.

"We have never had a measuring tool like we have in this ordinance," said council member Rick Hall, adding that this will help the city track ambulance performance.

Fire Chief Tony Nichols said he is concerned about the city entering "uncharted territory" if it completely eliminates the fire department's ambulance service on July 25. He urged the council to keep the department's advance life support equipment ready as a backup to help handle the call volume.

"I think we have to make sure we do it right, do it the right way and the safe way," Nichols said.

Assistant Fire Chief Sean Junge said feels that firefighters, as stakeholders in the emergency response system, were given little opportunity to provide input on the new ambulance regulations while private services had a lot of input. Junge said he cannot recommend approval for the new regulations due to his concerns about this document.

The council voted on July 18, 2017 to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service. City officials have said that this service loses money and duplicates the work of private providers. Mattoon Firefighters Local 691 has countered that the department's service generates needed revenue for the city and provides essential ambulance coverage for Mattoon.

Casey Schmitz, operations manager for Dunn's, said the city has asked private services to be ready to handle all of the ambulance calls, but uncertainty about when this change will take place has made it difficult to hire crews. Nevertheless, she said both Dunn's and Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service plan to have additional crew members and ambulances in place to continue serving the community.

"We are not going to leave anybody high and dry," Schmitz said. She added that Dunn's welcomes partnering with firefighter crews that have basic and advanced life support equipment. She said this backup service was standard practice before the fire department's started its own ambulance service several years ago.

Brian Gerth, operations manager for Abbott EMS, asked several questions about how the Coles County 911 system rotates calls to the different ambulance services and about the application process to become a provider under the city's new regulations. City officials advised that applicants do not need to have an office in Mattoon when they apply but will need to have one before they operate ambulances in Mattoon.

Bart Owen, president of the firefighters union, urged the city to keep the fire department's advanced life support capabilities in place as a backup. He also questioned whether the city has a plan in place for backup service and how it will have time to process ambulance service applications from current and possible new providers before July 25.

The city and the firefighters union are continuing to try to negotiate a new contract, and they met with a mediator on Tuesday. The current contract expired on April 30 but remains in effect until a new one is reached. Staffing levels have been a contentious issue in the contract negotiations due to the possibility of the number of firefighters being cut further due to the ambulance service elimination.

Owen said there are now eight legal proceedings regarding various related grievances and court filings that will need some type of resolution before the arbitration process can be completed. He said the union has offered to make concessions, including cuts of three staff members and other measures that would save $663,000 per year.

"Our union has not made an offer without the ambulance (service), and will not until we have exhausted all our legal challenges and grievances procedures," Owen said.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud

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