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County's ambulance services defended

Butte County has a superb emergency medical system that ought to be retained, the owner of a local ambulance company said this week.



If the county calls for bids and awards an ambulance contract to some big out-of-state corporation, local ambulance service likely won't be as effective nor as compassionate as it is now, said Byron Parsons, president and chief executive officer of First Responder Emergency Medical Services.



The people who run the two ambulance services that operate in Butte County, First Responder and Enloe Medical Center, live in the community and personally care about the people they serve, Parsons said. "They are our friends and our family and our neighbors."



Parsons acknowledged there could be a big change in local emergency services because of a lawsuit pending in Butte County Superior Court.



The suit is over whether Butte County has the right to set up what are called exclusive operating areas, where only First Responder and Enloe can operate ambulances.



Parsons said the current system ought to be allowed to continue.



"Butte has one of the best emergency services in the state on a par with anyone," he said.



Enloe and First Responder both provide a wealth of training and public education, he said.



Under the present system, local ambulances have the goal of arriving at an emergency scene within eight minutes, and they achieve that goal 90 percent of the time, he said.



However, a Chico State University professor of health-administration services, Rick Narad, claims the local system could be more effective if it were better regulated. Response times could improve, said Narad, an expert in emergency medical services.



In an interview last week, the professor said while the present system serves Enloe and First Responder well, it's not designed to give consumers the best service. The two companies aren't to blame they simply operate in accordance with the system, he added.



Parsons disagreed sharply with Narad's charges especially the professor's contention that the principle of sending the closest ambulance is being ignored because Chico is divided into two zones where service alternates between the two companies on odd-numbered and even-numbered days.



That's not the case, Parsons said. In the Chico area, the system is coordinated so that sending the closest ambulance is the top priority, he said.



The current system with the present two companies has served the county since as far back, perhaps, as the 1970s, Parsons said.



As he, and many others see it, he said, Enloe and First Responder, in effect, are "grandfathered in" to what amount to exclusive operating areas.



But the state Emergency Medical Services Authority, an agency charged with ensuring there is an effective system of emergency care throughout California, disagrees.



The issue of ambulance service in the county became controversial a couple of years ago when a third ambulance company, Priority One, which is based in Southern California, tried to start operating in Butte County. That action, by Priority One, led to a lawsuit.



In a preliminary ruling in the case, Judge Thomas Kelly wrote that in early 2006, NorCal Emergency Services, a regional entity that implements the state EMS Authority's policies, submitted a plan to the state showing Butte County's ambulance zones as "nonexclusive," that is open to ambulance companies other than First Responder and Enloe.



However, the judge wrote, Butte County contends it and not the EMS agencies retained the right to establish exclusive operating areas and also that Enloe and First Responder were in fact grandfathered in as exclusive providers.



In his preliminary ruling last month, the judge found that NorCal EMS and not the county had the authority to establish exclusive operating areas if it decided they were warranted. The judge told attorneys in the case to study his decision and to meet later this month with him to discuss setting a date for trial.



Depending on the outcome of the lawsuit, Butte County supervisors might decide to call for bids and award one or more franchises for ambulance service in different parts of the county, said Phyllis Murdock, director of the county Public Health Department. To prepare for that possibility, the county interviewed consultants and recommended that a tentative contract with one of them be approved.

The contract was on the agenda at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, but the board decided to postpone action on it, Murdock said.



Narad, who has been a consultant himself to counties that call for bids on ambulance service, said there are advantages to awarding franchises through bidding. The companies that win the franchises can be held to strict standards for performance and cost, he said.



The lawsuit was filed last year by First Responder, Enloe Medical Center and Oroville Hospital.



Among other things, the plaintiffs argued it wasn't fair to let other ambulance services into the county. They said Enloe and First Responder had invested millions of dollars in their ambulance systems, believing they had and would continue to have exclusive rights to operate in the county.



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