The Santa Barbara County Fire Department has purchased and received 35 ambulances for a provider contract it does not have, which has prompted questions in what’s become a contentious process.
Readers have noticed rows of unmarked vans parked at fire stations and other locations around the county, and public records confirm the county’s purchases.
Santa Barbara County’s longtime contract with American Medical Response for ambulance services ends next year, and the Board of Supervisors is accepting applications for providers. The county initially pursued an exclusive contract, for which AMR and County Fire applied. AMR’s proposal scored higher.
The supervisors decided in April to throw that process out and create a permit-based system with different contracts for emergency medical response and transports, for interfacility transfers and for critical care transfers.
No one has applied for those permits yet, but both organizations are expected to compete for them.
Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, confronted the Board of Supervisors during public comment at last week’s meeting and said, “Before County Fire had a contract, somebody bought ambulances. Enough ambulances to serve the whole contract.”
Caldwell, who has a talk radio show, frequently comments on county government policy and politics. He submitted a California Public Records Act Request and discovered the purchase orders for ambulances, he said.
“How does somebody have the confidence that County Fire was going to get this contract?” he said.
Purchase orders show about $3.4 million spent with Republic EVS LLC on Medix Specialty Vehicles Type II on Ford Transit chassis.
County spokeswoman Kelsey Gerckens Buttitta told Noozhawk that the County Fire Department put out a request for proposals to purchase ambulances in 2021 because it intended to pursue the ambulance services contract.
Ambulance orders can take up to two years to get filled, she said.
“Fire’s RFP to purchase ambulances was a vital component of Fire’s bid to be the ambulance service provider for Santa Barbara County and they knew there would be a long lead time, so to be prepared they had to start early,” Gerckens Buttitta said in an email.
The one vendor who submitted a bid, Republic EVS LLC, wasn’t able to deliver any ambulances until 2023, she said.
In March, the company said it could deliver seven ambulances of the 35 requested.
At that point, all of County Fire’s protests and appeals of AMR’s higher score had been rejected and the contract was still up in the air.
“If the order was not placed, the ambulances would be sold to another purchaser and Fire would go to the back of the line and potentially wait an additional two years to be able to purchase ambulances,” Gerckens Buttitta told Noozhawk.
They were ordered.
In May, after the Board of Supervisors rejected the RFP process and decided to go with non-exclusive contracts, the vendor offered another 28 ambulances.
County Fire ordered those, too, with the money coming from fleet vehicle allocations, Gerckens Buttitta said.
As of now, 35 ambulances have been purchased and delivered, and are being stored at County Fire stations, the Fire Headquarters parking lot, the South County Garage and Vandenberg Space Force Base, she said.
They are white, unmarked Ford Transit vans.
If County Fire does not get one of the ambulance services contracts, or does not need all of the ambulance vehicles, they could be resold, Gerckens Buttitta said.
“For this reason, the ambulances were not customized to the Fire District’s unique specifications,” Gerckens Buttitta said. “The ambulances were outfitted in a way that they could more easily be resold if necessary.”
Last week, the Board of Supervisors created an ambulance operator job classification since County Fire plans to apply for the permits.
The ambulance operator-paramedics and ambulance operator-emergency medical technicians would be represented by Service Employees International Union Local 620. They would not be safety employees, even though they’d be part of the County Fire Department.
The county approved the new ambulance provider permit system over objections from AMR and concerns from hospital CEOs.
AMR regional director Mike Sanders said in June that the company was “blindsided and disappointed” by the county decision to throw out the exclusive provider system.
CEOs from local hospitals wrote a joint letter to the Board of Supervisors at the same time with concerns about the new system’s ability to provide 24/7 access to transfers between facilities.
“The system must ensure that medically necessary, albeit unprofitable, (inter-facility transfers and critical care transports) must still be provided in a manner that retains or improves existing standards of care,” wrote Ron Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health; Sue Anderson, president and CEO of Marian Regional Medical Center; and Steve Popkin, CEO of Lompoc Valley Medical Center.
Noozhawk staff writer Rebecca Caraway contributed reporting to this story.