WCCAD works out contract renewal

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Commissioners of the Western Carroll County Ambulance District spent the first half of 2017 focused on the contract for service that would expire at the end of June. They were not satisfied the existing contract allowed them to hold the current provider – the Eureka Springs Fire Department Emergency Medical Services – accountable, according to language in the contract.

Commissioners therefore did two things: worked over issues in the contract and put the contract out for bid. Supporters of ESFD filled the ESFD meeting room at the February meeting. Jed Bullock said he was entering his 23rd year of service with ESFD, and proclaimed, “I don’t want anybody else responding.” He noted the “outstanding training, facilities and equipment” and urged commissioners, “I ask you to award it to the best, which is the Eureka Springs Fire Department.”

Several others gave testimony in support of ESFD. Commissioner Ken Mills took exception to the question of why the commission was even looking for anyone else, stated there were points in the contract that needed to better delineated, and the commission did not always get adequate reports. Commissioner Marie Lee said they were doing their due diligence to provide clarity in what was expected, and Chair Sam Ward pointed out he was uncomfortable with the number of times ESFD did not respond in the time specified in the contract. He also stated ESFD was not complying with language in the contract that required two ambulances to be ready to respond to the western part of the county at all times.

Fire Chief Nick Samac responded that since he took over he had provided better reporting and response times had improved.

As citizens voiced support for Samac and ESFD, Ward responded, “We won’t go for the lowest bidder. We’ll go for the best deal, and we need to have all the facts.”

Bids for the contract were opened March 23 in Judge Sam Barr’s office. Three providers had submitted bids: ESFD, Mercy Ambulance Service and Ozark EMS. Mercy’s bid was $590,000, far more than the approximately $300,000 WCCAD receives annually. The bid from ESFD amounted to $255,000 a year. Ward sparred a bit with Samac about the strategy for covering the western district with what Ward termed “part-time ambulances.”

The bid from Ozark EMS asked for $240,000 with an ambulance stationed in Holiday Island and another west of Eureka Springs, sites not determined.

Dr. Gregory Kresse, medical director for ESFD for 20 years, said he’d seen ESFD tailor itself to cover the western district with staff trained in Haz-Mat and poison spill emergencies. He claimed ESFD could get to remote locations without GPS, a feat others could not duplicate. “Our paramedics can open your car if you’re trapped inside. You’ve got the best fire department already sitting in a perfect spot,” he commented. “We are blessed with this amazing ambulance system.”

Commissioner reconvened April 3 to decide. Ward opened the meeting by asserting the goal of the process had been to achieve “a more succinct and complete agreement” to clear up issues in the contract. He also stated the role of the commission was to provide the best service for inhabitants of the western district, and in his opinion ESFD had fallen short on occasions. One sticking point for Ward was the requirement that the service provider respond to 90 percent of the calls within 15 minutes.

Mills pointed out the bid from Ozark EMS was not compliant because the bid not include a balance sheet demonstrating they were financially viable. Ward at first considered ESFD to be non-compliant as well because of its strategy for ambulance availability. For him, that meant two of the three bids were non-compliant and Mercy’s bid far too expensive. He suggested the commission rewrite the Request for Proposal.

“So we start from scratch?” commissioner David Carlisle asked. He observed the commission could not afford more than the two lowest bids, and reread the ESFD strategy for providing ambulances for the western district and argued on its behalf. “There’s a logic and pie in the sky and reality,” he said, and pointed out as far as they knew ESFD had one failure in 20 years.

More deliberation ensued with Ward sticking to his points about the integrity of the contract. Carlisle and commissioner Marie Lee were convinced the contract could be negotiated. Carlisle argued they could “negotiate something that gives reality a voice.”

Ward eventually agreed to rework language in the contract regarding having two ambulances available at all times for the western district and clarify the 15-minute goal for parts of the county not reachable within that parameter.

Vote to award the contract to ESFD was unanimous.

At the next regular meeting, Ward continued to have problems with inaccuracies on Samac’s reports. A vigorous conversation ensued which led commissioners to schedule a special workshop to fine-tune the contract further. At that meeting, Samac was charged with determining where a reasonable 15-minute drive zone would be, and he again was apprised of concerns with inaccurate reports.

On June 13, commissioners finalized the contract. Samac distributed maps showing what he considered a reasonable 15-minute response zone beyond which was an 18-minute zone. He agreed to provide explanations for any calls that were over the expected response time, and assured commissioners he would refine his reports accordingly. Both sides also agreed on trainings ESFD would provide and cleared up the ambulance deployment strategy. The contract was officially approved at the June 20 regular meeting.

At each meeting, representatives of each of the fire districts – Holiday Island, Inspiration Point, Grassy Knob, Eureka Springs and Eureka Springs Rural – reported on their activity. Volunteer first responders recounted being called out at all times of the day and night for motorcycle wrecks, car crashes, boating accidents, fires, medical emergencies, and sometimes a person who fell needing help. They encountered situations requiring life-saving measures, and occasionally encountered a person already deceased. They mentioned ongoing training sessions and annual mass casualty drills so that volunteers are ready to respond until ambulances arrive.