Gilbert rolls out its own fleet of ambulances tomorrow at 7 a.m.., aiming to deliver cost-effective service and faster response times during emergencies.
The July 26 debut culminates a process that began last fall, when Town Council gave the go-ahead for Gilbert Fire and Rescue to buy six ambulances, equipment and supplies. The department also hired 30 civilian EMTs and paramedics for a staff of 36 full-time personnel assigned to man the six ambulances 24/7.
“The Gilbert Fire and Rescue Department ambulance personnel will have the same medical training, medical equipment and follow the same protocols as the firefighters,” said town spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison. “This will allow for more seamless operations on medical calls.”
Gilbert budgeted $6.68 million this fiscal year for the program, which included $2.48 million for start-up costs, $3.14 million for salaries and $1.06 million for operating expenses. Harrison said the program budget also included $100,000 for contingencies, which has not been spent.
Town officials anticipated recouping the $2.48 million start-up cost for the program in the first six years by billing users. They also expect revenue from the program to offset all expenses.
The expected revenue for one full year of operations was $4.14 million, Harrison said.
Additional hires for the program included a full-time ambulance transportation manager, an administrative assistant and an ambulance transportation quality analyst, according to Harrison.
The ambulances will be stationed at six of the Town’s 11 firehouses – Station No. 1 at Williams Fields Road and Loop 202; No. 2 at Guadalupe and Higley roads; No. 3 at Guadalupe and Lindsay roads; No. 7 at Warner and Cooper roads; No. 8 at E. Germann Road and Val Vista Drive and No. 9 at Ocotillo and Higley roads.
Although the Council last August also authorized renewing for two years the contract with the private ambulance operator American Medical Response, it has since been canceled, Harrison said.
With the instability in the ambulance industry, namely the bankruptcy filing of then-provider Rural Metro in 2013, town officials say a publicly owned service is the appropriate route to take in order to protect a critical service for Gilbert’s 260,000 residents.
Officials also maintained that a town-operated service will ensure all parts of Gilbert are equally served, which was not happening with AMR.
The private provider overall was meeting its contractual obligations because it was allowed to blend all its responses to meet the 90-percentile response time, according to fire officials.
But in drilling down into the data the department found inequity in AMR’s deployment in Gilbert with longer response times for the northeast corner and south areas of town.
From May 2019 to April 2020, there were 333 AMR ambulance responses that exceeded contractual requirements.
They included 79 of the calls or 24 percent were Code 3 responses that included cardiac arrest and drowning, and 254 calls or 76 percent were Code 2 responses that include semi-life-threatening conditions like breathing difficulty and diabetic calls, according to Gilbert Fire.
Another positive for Gilbert patients involves lower billing rates than AMR’s, according to officials. Last year, they said the town’s proposed rates would be the third lowest in Arizona.
Billing rates are determined by the state Department of Health Services and any changes will need Council approval.
“Gilbert Fire and Rescue Department has not requested a rate increase for ambulance transportation services since 2017,” Harrison said. Gilbert put one ambulance in service in 2017.
According to Harrison, the town will charge $913.01 for an Advanced Life Support ambulance transport and a Basic Life Support ambulance transport, $813.65 with mileage charged at $15.80 a mile.
AMR’s rates for this year have been $997.05 for an ALS ambulance transport, $888.15 for a BLS ambulance transport and $20.67 a mile for mileage, according to Harrison.
The Fire Department at this time also won’t be charging patients for the medical supplies used during the ride to the hospital, Harrison said.
She noted another benefit residents will see is the support that is offered locally if there are questions or needs assistance with billing issues.
Not everyone on Council was on board with the idea of a town-run ambulance service.
Then-Councilman Jared Taylor and Councilwoman Aimee Yentes raised a number of concerns, such as costs, and both felt ambulances were best left with the private sector.
Under the contract with AMR, the provider was paying the Town approximately $300,000 year for leasing space for its ambulances.
Councilman Laurin Hendrix made it clear during his campaign last year that he opposed the move, calling it an encroachment on the private sector.
But the program got the backing of residents. A survey asking for public feedback on the proposal for Town-operated ambulances found a 5 to 1 ration in support, according to fire officials. A total of 945 people responded.
Some of the key takeaways of the survey included 66.8 percent of the respondents valued local control over response times, staffing needs and billing rates.