IRVINE - Decision means big changes in how services for 911 calls will be doled out.
State officials have stripped the Orange County Fire Authority of its role in selecting ambulance contracts for most of the county, rejecting a last-ditch effort to keep the process in OCFA hands.
Instead, officials from the state's Emergency Medical Services Authority told county officials they must submit a comprehensive plan of how emergency ambulance services will be provided in the county - and then Orange County Emergency Medical Services can oversee the bidding process.
The decision means big changes in how lucrative ambulance service contracts for 911 calls are doled out throughout the county, a process that officials at the state's Emergency Medical Services Authority said had been raising questions for years.
Some contracts had not gone out to bid despite statutory requirements and, in some cities, contracts were awarded to companies that had not made the top bid, said Dan Smiley, chief deputy director for the California EMS Authority.
Most concerning, Smiley said, is that Orange County has not submitted a comprehensive plan on how ambulance services are provided since 2007, though it is required to do so annually.
"There appeared to be significant confusion in Orange County as to what the roles and responsibilities were, hence our request for a plan," Smiley said.
State officials sent several requests for it, he said.
"I can't remember what the exact response was, but I think it was something like, 'We're working on it,' " he said. "Suffice it to say we didn't receive a plan."
As it stood previously, OCFA would screen possible companies for minimal qualifications, then evaluate and rank the proposals according to a grading panel. It would then be up to the cities to select their contractor, though according to a January staff report from the OCFA, the winner was not always highest ranked.
OCFA Battalion Chief Kelly Zimmerman said the agency received a verbal notification it would no longer be handling the contracts Friday morning, and the department would be willing to work for a smooth transition.
"Everyone is still waiting to see what comes in writing," said Jean Pasco, communications manager for the county.
Though the way the contracts will be awarded remains to be seen, state officials said they must be handled by Orange County's Emergency Medical Services.
"The state has stepped in and said the county can't delegate its authority," to OCFA, Pasco said.
OCFA's handling of ambulance contracts has come into question in the past, in particular because of a September memo from a battalion chief that invited current ambulance companies to a "current provider meeting" ahead of the bidding process.
The memo prompted criticism from the Board of Supervisors and suggestions that the county would intercede in the agency.
Fire Chief Keith Richter apologized for the "poorly worded," email.
Still, it seems management of the program will be leaving OCFA hands after all.
During a four-hour meeting Thursday in Sacramento, county officials attempted to persuade the state's Emergency Medical Services Authority to keep the program as is. The meeting included Sam J. Stratton, Orange County EMS medical director.
OCFA officials did not attend the meeting, county and state officials said.
At the base of the decision, Smiley said, was a 2010 court decision that stated the local EMS agency could not delegate its authority to another department.
The county's plan must specify how emergency service will be organized and managed, how communication is handled, what training is done and what hospitals are used in critical areas, Smiley said.
"There is a good possibility that the county Board of Supervisors may be the ones entering into a contract with the provider, but I think there is a lot of work to be done at the local (EMS) agency," Smiley said.
Nineteen contracts for the county expire on Aug. 31, Pasco said.
Orange County has not submitted a comprehensive plan on how ambulance services are provided since 2007.