Another chapter in the strained relationship between Murrieta and the company that handles its ambulance calls played out this week, when American Medical Response employees publicly called for an apology from city officials.
Two AMR employees spoke during Tuesday's City Council meeting to complain about comments made two weeks ago by council members, including implications the company's crew members were unprofessional and one councilman's angry assertion that the company was committing "outright fraud."
Jim Price, operations manager for American Medical Response in Riverside, said he watched the meeting online.
"It's OK if you guys want to attack AMR, it's OK if you want to attack me," Price said, "But it's not OK, nor is it appropriate, for you to attack the fine men and women of AMR, who do nothing but serve this community with the same pride and enthusiasm as the firemen do."
Price also complained that Murrieta firefighters thought AMR employees who are based in the city's fire stations were "OK to participate in washing toilets but we're not OK to participate in Thanksgiving dinners."
Fire Chief Matt Shobert declined to comment after the meeting.
Murrieta officials have called repeatedly for Riverside County to revamp how it handles emergency response, including putting its exclusive ambulance contract up for competitive bidding. AMR has operated in the county for the past three decades and had its contract extended in 2004 and 2009. It is up for another three-year extension and is negotiating the terms of that deal with the county. The contract has never been competitively bid.
During a meeting two weeks ago, Murrieta officials discussed charging residents a $350 fee each time its firefighters respond to a medical emergency. They contend the city's firefighters must respond to every emergency medical call because they often get to the scene faster than ambulances.
The meeting included several jabs, including Councilman Randon Lane's criticism of AMR's practice of charging people for ambulance rides when firefighters perform most of the treatment. He said the practice amounted to "fraud, the f word, fraud, and it's wrong and we're getting the short end of the stick here."
Lane has since apologized to the company for that remark, saying he didn't intend to imply criminal behavior.
"I do not believe AMR is doing anything intentionally illegal," Lane said Tuesday, after Price spoke. "But I do have great concern and I will continue to lobby the policies and the rules by which our (emergency) services are handled in the county of Riverside."
AMR spokesman Jason Sorrick disputed the idea that ambulances are slower than the firetrucks. He said on Wednesday that the Fire Department's average response time in 2010 was 6 minutes and 51 seconds, while AMR's Murrieta response time was 6 minutes 48 seconds.
Alan Long, the other councilman most vocal about the issue, said he never intended to impugn AMR employees. He said his issues were with the county's emergency system, not with ambulance crews.
"I'm not going to back down from my statements of having issues with our system," Long said Wednesday. "The county system needs to be improved."
Follow John F. Hill on Twitter: @johnfhill2
March 22, 2012