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Improvements sought in Calif. ambulance services

MENLO PARK, Calif. Menlo Park Fire District leaders have long clamored for ways to improve ambulance service within their boundaries.

They've reached a point where they're entertaining the idea of opting out of San Mateo County's ambulance system and creating their own program.

"We are not particularly happy with the service," district board President Ollie Brown said. "Because we're at the end of the county, the coverage is not fully here."

Establishing its own ambulance company is among the options Menlo Park is exploring to enhance emergency care for its residents at a time when surrounding districts are also facing challenges under the existing system.

The Woodside and Pacifica fire agencies, for instance, are considering dropping their firefighter-staffed ambulance program because of financial reasons.

However, county leaders say the system overall has been running well, especially compared to what it was in the past.

This system involves a complicated public/private partnership with the county, a joint powers authority including most of the local fire agencies, and the for-profit provider AmericanMedical Response.

"We believe the system is working right now," said county Emergency Medical Services Administrator Barbara Pletz.

She said the present standard requires paramedics on a fire engine to arrive at the scene of an emergency in less than seven minutes 90 percent of the time in urban and suburban areas countywide.

That's quicker than under the old system in the 1990s, when just an ambulance typically responded under nine minutes, she said.

Still, Menlo Park leaders believe response times in their district could be better.

"We sometimes feel we're at the end of the world when we're waiting for an ambulance," said district Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman.

"We know the ambulance service in the district is not up to par," board member Peter Carpenter said during a recent meeting.

Carpenter proposed having the board look into a formal request asking the county to let Menlo Park operate and charge for its own ambulance service dedicated solely for the district's residents.

Larry Olson, JPA executive director, described that idea as "an interesting hypothetical discussion."

But given the current contract with AMR, "it's really not realistic or possible for any department or anyone to jump in and provide ambulance service," Olson said.

Schapelhouman suggested another possibility.

The Alternative Transport Vehicle parked at the main station and tapped only for special purposes within the district could be used as a regular backup when ambulances countywide are busy, the chief said.

District EMS Chief Tim Campbell added that the ATV could serve well as another option during disasters.

That arrangement could be worked into the next ambulance agreement when the AMR contract is up for renewal in 2009, Campbell said.

An AMR official could not be reached for further comment Friday.

Meanwhile, the fire agencies in Woodside and Pacifica might discontinue their ambulance service, which is currently staffed by firefighter paramedics but still part of the county system.

Woodside district Fire Chief Armando Muela said his agency spends more than $750,000 a year to run the ambulance stationed in the district, but gets reimbursed only about $177,000 annually from the JPA.

"We're asking for more," Muela said. "Any money from (transporting patients) goes directly back to AMR -- about $1million a year. We want to get closer to that number."

In recent years, the fire agencies in Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay opted out of that same operation because of similar budgetary issues.

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