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Fire Department eyes ambulance biz 

click to enlarge City Council is exploring the possibility of the Fire Department  which already responds to all emergency calls  taking over all services from the currently contracted ambulance service. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • City Council is exploring the possibility of the Fire Department which already responds to all emergency calls taking over all services from the currently contracted ambulance service.

Dial 911 in Colorado Springs and you'll get a double dose of emergency service.

Speeding to your aid will be a driver and paramedic from American Medical Response (AMR), a private ambulance company, and a paramedic from the Colorado Springs Fire Department. While there's only one actual ambulance service in the county, 911 calls typically find multiple paramedics, EMTs as well as Fire Department personnel on the same scene. However redundant, it's a system that few beef about.

Except some members of City Council.

Last month, at the urging of Councilors Margaret Radford and Tom Gallagher, the Council asked the Fire Department to explore the option of taking over ambulance service, or "transport" as it's known, from AMR, which is contracted to serve Colorado Springs, as well as the rest of El Paso County, through the end of 2006.

Fire Department Chief Manuel Navarro said it's premature to speculate on what his department will or will not recommend when it reports back to Council in six months; however it's never too soon for politicos to hurl salvos.

Finding common ground

The possibility that the Fire Department will claim AMR's turf has some county commissioners fretting that it will come at the expense of service for remote rural areas. The issue has even found normally dueling commissioners Tom Huffman and Jeri Howells in firm agreement.

"This is a regional service," said Huffman. "What happens to Calhan? What happens to Ellicott?" Huffman said he considers the proposal to be little more than a move by the firefighters union, Local 5, "and their helper Sallie Clark," who's running for county commissioner with backing from the firefighters association.

"The question boils down to, who will service people in the more remote rural corners of El Paso County?" Howells said. "If this merger goes through, is it safe to say no one?"

Radford, however, calls such alarmism the result of AMR's "PR machine," working to whip up hysteria among elected officials against the possibility of change. Radford said the redundancy of service is little more than a city-sanctioned subsidy to a private corporation.

"Our Fire Department almost always arrives first, stabilizes the patient, renders aid, administers drugs," Radford said. "Our paramedics ride in with AMR, then AMR turns around and bills [insurance companies]."

The city's Fire Department, meanwhile, is not reimbursed for its efforts. In the last fiscal quarter, AMR's revenues were nearly $5 million. However, less than half of that could be billed, mostly due to the number of uninsured residents.

Doug Moore, PR manager for the ambulance company, said he doesn't understand how the current contract can be considered a subsidy. "We provide a service to the city, the Fire Department doesn't do any transporting," Moore said.

Questions remain

Should the Fire Department decide to take over ambulance service, it wouldn't be alone. Departments in Denver and Fountain also provide ambulance services. But as chief Navarro notes, the move would require the city to make major capital outlays for vehicles and personnel. Navarro, who also currently chairs the board of the Emergency Services Association, which oversees the city/county emergency services contract, acknowledges that streamlining the system could improve quality of service and even reduce costs in the long run. Still, the risk worries him.

"Should we not make up our operational costs in our first few years, the Fire Department would be put in the position of asking the city to extend the loan or to forgive the money left on the loan," Navarro said. "How much is it going to cost to operate the system? How much can we make when we charge?"

Navarro said these questions are the most critical to his department's research and any future Council decision.

-- John Dicker

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