The Santa Barbara County Fire Department takes over as the county’s ambulance provider in just four months, and wants to hire paramedics, EMTs and registered nurses as soon as possible.
Even though its contracts are still being negotiated with the county Public Health Department, fire officials need to hire and train the workforce, equip its fleet of vehicles, finalize deployment models, and otherwise prepare for the March 1 start date.
In September, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to give the county Fire Department ambulance services permits for 9-1-1 emergency medical response and transport; interfacility transfer and special event staging; and critical care transport.
The Board of Supervisors denied American Medical Response’s permit for 9-1-1 response. They said the application didn’t detail how the company would serve remote areas of the county while meeting response time requirements.
The supervisors also said the proposal “demonstrates relatively few community benefits,” and didn’t have innovative ideas for integrating into the emergency medical system.
County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig and other leadership staff are asking the supervisors to authorize $18.65 million in startup costs (funded by fire district reserves) for the contract implementation plan.
The proposal will be heard at Tuesday’s meeting in Santa Maria. It requires four-fifths approval to pass (four out of five supervisors).
Plan Includes Building a Workforce, Examining Ambulance Rates
The county Fire Department plans to hire 123 full-time equivalent employees for now. It proposes bringing on some staff as “extra help” in January for training so they can keep their other jobs until March 1 — a policy likely written with current AMR employees in mind.
Ambulance operators will be nonsafety employees represented by SEIU Local 620 even though they’re part of the county Fire Department.
Also on the to-do list are agreements for ambulance stations and comfort stations, which will be located at 23 county and municipal fire stations throughout the county.
County Fire proposed using current ambulance rates, but will do a fee study to analyze whether to request changes.
The current rates are $3,321.32 for advanced life support; $2,158 for basic life support; a $334.39 stand-by rate; $220.68 for oxygen; and $64.89 for mileage.
In last year’s bid proposal, County Fire expected $8 million in profits yearly, which would be reinvested in the local emergency medical services system.
It may be an even larger number, because fire officials expect to pay the startup costs with a projected $11.6 million in ambulance transport revenues.
They’ll also use debt financing for some of its Regional Fire Communications Center funding, which frees up millions of dollars for this program, according to the board letter.
AMR’s Lawsuit Over Permit Denial
American Medical Response has provided continuous ambulance services in the county since 1980. Its current contract ends in February.
AMR and County Fire each submitted proposals and then permit applications for ambulance services contracts with the county.
When the county denied AMR’s permit application, American Medical Response West sued the county, the Board of Supervisors, the County Fire Protection District and the Public Health Department.
The company is asking a judge to basically undo the permit approval for County Fire.
In court documents, AMR’s attorneys argue the company will have irreparable financial and reputational harm by making it leave the county.
AMR may not be able to return and restart services here even if it is victorious in court, attorneys argue. They estimate it would cost $17 million to discontinue then resume service in Santa Barbara County.
The company will try to reassign staff to AMR-affiliated jobs in other areas, but will probably lose some of its 162-member workforce to County Fire jobs and others, regional director Mike Sanders wrote in a court declaration.
AMR alleges the county abused its discretion by denying the permit of a qualified provider, and that fire officials were inappropriately involved in the ordinance development and decision-making process.
The Board of Supervisors will talk about the lawsuit in closed session Tuesday.
The board also is expected to approve a contract with an outside legal firm to represent the county and Fire Department in the case.
County Fire will pay for the legal services agreement with Los Angeles-based Hooper, Lundy & Bookman P.C., which has a maximum amount of $650,000 through mid-2025.