NEWPORT—Commissioners on the County Legislative Body (CLB) continue to hear from members of the public about issues involving First Call Ambulance service.

Their concerns were discussed Tuesday evening during a meeting of the Public Safety Committee. This is not the first meeting that has been held to discuss residents’ issues with the emergency service provider.

Slow response times and lack of available ambulances have led commissioners to question the company’s commitment to the county’s citizens.

Commissioner Casey Gilliam asked for Tuesday’s meeting to be held to further express his displeasure over First Call’s service.

“I constantly receive calls from people about the lack of service across the county,” Gilliam said. “I’m tired of the excuses because we have people dying and being turned down when they’re in need.”

The current contract with First Call stipulates that the company must handle all 911 calls made in an emergency situation. With that being the case, the county has little recourse in terms of bringing in another provider. They could seek secondary assistance with minor medical calls, but in reality there is little money to be made and no incentive for companies to locate in the county.

“I know you all have good intentions, but under the contract we can’t bring anyone in to help with these calls,” Gilliam continued. “You’re (First Call) supposed to be able to handle it, but we have people sitting around having heart attacks and being told you can’t send anyone.”

Lindsay Ellison, General Manager for First Call in Newport, attended the meeting to address some of the commissioners’ concerns.

Several of her superiors had planned to attend the meeting but could not due to unforeseen circumstances.

Ellison said First Call is experiencing a staffing shortage brought on by the pandemic and an overall lack of interest in the career field. She said the company will hold an eight week training course in the near future for ambulance operators. Ellison said the company has offered bonuses and guaranteed overtime as incentives but still struggle to find qualified individuals.

“I personally feel that there aren’t enough people out there that want to do this job,” Ellison said. “The state was turning out 200 to 300 EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) every year. That number is now down to about 50 individuals. COVID made things worse and even with bonuses we struggle to keep fully staffed.”

The term “level zero” is used when an ambulance is not available to transport an individual facing a medical issue. Ellison said that all emergency calls take precedence, but in some cases the situation is out of their control. COVID has created longer waits at hospitals in addition to limited space for patients.

Ellison said First Call is often forced to transport patients to surrounding counties that have adequate room for the individual. She said that patients can also request transport to hospitals in neighboring counties.

“When in ambulance is not available we never tell them we’re not coming,” Ellison said. “There will be many times that we go four to five days before we’re in a situation where we don’t have an ambulance available. Other times it may happen twice in one day depending on our call volume.”

First Call was purchased by Priority Ambulance in early October of 2021. Rob Webb serves as the Vice President of Operations for the company. He could not attend the meeting, but Forest Clevenger, vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he recently met with Webb to discuss the future of First Call.

“They have a lot of plans, and I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Clevenger said, “as long as its not all talk.”

One of the plans that may be implemented in the near future is putting an ambulance in place that is dedicated to non emergency calls. The company hopes that will free up other vehicles and crews to respond to more life threatening incidents.

Commissioner Gilliam said there is much to be consider when the CLB votes to renew the contract with the company or seek another provider. The contract with First Call is set to expire on June 30.

“Every time you all are called in here there is an excuse,” Gilliam said. “That’s not good business, and if you can’t handle things maybe we need to move on. There are a lot of sick and elderly individuals in this county. I know you are busy, but they need to know there is a guardian angel there for them no matter what situation they’re in. If I had to vote on this tomorrow, I’d vote no. The people of this county are not happy.”

CLB chair Clay Blazer was in attendance for the meeting though he is not a member of the committee. He urged his fellow commissioners to be diligent when reviewing the contract between the two parties.

“We need to pay attention and think about the issues,” Blazer said. “It’s hard to say that they are in breach of their contract at this point.” The contract with the company was initially signed in 2012 and renewed in 2017. Blazer said the body has learned a lot over the last 10 years.

“We know a lot more now than we did five years ago, and five years before that. We need to be wiser because the contract will only be as good as we want it to be. We’re dealing with an EMS situation that no one could have foreseen. It’s COVID now but it’ll be something else in the future. It will take forward thinking when looking at this contract.”

The bid that was received from another company during the last RFP (request for proposal) process was significantly higher than that of First Call, according to Blazer. He said it may take more county dollars to bring in a different provider if the CLB chooses to move in that direction.

Commissioner Clevenger said First Call was asked about providing additional ambulances to the county, but those would come with a price tag of nearly $80,000 per unit.

Ellison told the committee that First Call/Priority is ready to have this exact conversation with the county before a contract is renewed. Commissioners hope to gain input from all concerned parties before making a decision.

Another Public Safety Committee meeting has been scheduled for February 8 to meet with Tennova/Newport Medical representatives, EMA Director Joe Esway, County Fire Chief Bryan Southerland, City Fire Chief Jeremy Shelton, volunteer fire department chiefs and others.

Committee members will take all of the suggestions made by the different groups and formulate a new contract, which they hope to discuss with First Call during a meeting set for February 28.

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