Ambulance service needs raise concerns

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published October 11, 2011

HARPER WOODS — The city is on the precipice of financial disaster if it doesn’t act now to make cuts and raise revenue, but there are people who say the risk of potential disaster of another kind is too great to avoid getting a second ambulance.

The Fire Department hasn’t had two ambulances since sometime in 2010. It has relied on mutual aid for some time, but many mutual aid partners have expressed frustration at the city, and some have even pulled out on mutual-aid agreements. They wanted it to be a two-way street, and Harper Woods simply doesn’t have the manpower or equipment to do that.

Earlier this year, the city decided to reach out to a private ambulance service to help provide that backup service, but some say that just isn’t working out, and response times have been called into question.

“The second ambulance is invaluable to servicing the community,” Firefighter Union President David Micallef said in an email. “From the service end, it guarantees residents a three-minute response time once the Fire/EMS department is notified of the call, and it is staffed with two firefighter/paramedics, both capable of providing advanced cardiac life support.”

Micallef argues that a second ambulance also is an income generator for the city. In 2009, the second ambulance collected more than $60,000 of the bills submitted.

Resident Susan Uhl submitted a FOIA request and received documents pertaining to the use of a private ambulance and concerns from the union about response times.

In the FOIA documents, Micallef sent letters to Fire Chief Sean Gunnery with some of those concerns.

He raised concern about communication issues with using a private company, including a private ambulance being dispatched first when Harper Woods’ crew is available, among issues with subcontracting work while hearing word about possible future layoffs.

In letters to the chief, Micallef raised concerns about incidents in which response times for relying on private service were up to 10 minutes in some situations, and he cited one instance that an ambulance wouldn’t have been available for 20 minutes.

“This delayed response would’ve been a serious issue if our personnel were unavailable to begin care of this patient,” Gunnery stated in an August letter to City Manager James Leidlein, adding that it was busier than average that day. “I am aware of the current financial situation and that difficult decisions are pending. My concern is for our residents, and a delayed response of this nature could have terrible ramifications.”

In a July memo from Leidlein in the FOIA documents obtained by Uhl, he stated that he found Micallef’s “criticisms unwarranted and baseless.” He said the use of a private ambulance company is not any different than relying on mutual aid from the Grosse Pointes.

“Unfortunately, some delays will occur if our primary ambulance is on another run,” he stated. “Micallef keeps referring to this ‘magical’ three-minutes response time standard that you hold them accountable for. The fact of the matter is that this three-minute response time by our ambulance is elusive.”

Leidein stated that records show an average response time of six minutes from Jan. 1, 2008, to July 2011.

When asked about whether lengthy runs were an issue when the city had more mutual-aid partnerships to rely on and had a second ambulance, Micallef said that the city is busy and there were occasions that both ambulances were out. The city would know how long it would take nearby cities to arrive — like eight to 10 minutes from Eastpointe or six minutes from Grosse Pointe Woods.

“Since the city has been using a private company, these response times have ranged from seven minutes to 20 minutes to notifications of ‘no ambulances available’ at all,” Micallef said in an email. “This is unacceptable service to the residents of this community.”

Micallef said that he has informed the city of possible ways to get an ambulance with zero up-front costs with a lease-to-own program.

He said they could use the money that the ambulance brings in to pay that lease.

“Also, our fire chief has applied for several grants this year, one of which is for a new ambulance,” Micallef said in an email. “We are hopeful that the city will entertain one of these two options.”

Uhl has been following this issue for some time and said that the response times with using private service are higher than the average Leidlein states Harper Woods has had in the past.

She raised concerns that there’s no written contract to use a private company, so she is not criticizing the help the private company is trying to provide.

She feels the City Council has failed to deal with the issue of ambulance needs. She said it’s also a matter of losing revenue to mutual aid and private companies for runs in the city.

“We have fully trained paramedics at the station ready, willing and able to respond to medical emergencies,” she said in an email. “What we don’t have is the equipment that allows them to do so. There is no logical explanation for the city to continue to give away this money.”

She also has issues that money was spent on cross-training police officers, which could have gone toward an ambulance. Uhl said she continues to ask questions about the ambulance issues and doesn’t receive answers, and recently, she claims, she was told it would be discussed during budget sessions.

City Council members have asked questions about the ambulance situation, including raising the issue during a recent budget session. Acting City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk said he’s focusing first on preventing layoffs and then equipment needs.

Harper Woods is about $2.8 million in the hole, which the city is working to fix so that they can avoid having an emergency financial manager take over.

“You can’t really answer anything until you know what kind of concessions you have (from unions) and then you can take it from there,” Mayor Ken Poynter explained.