Ambulance Chases

If you need anemergency medical vehicle, just hope you're in the right partof Maricopa County. If you're not, questionable dispatching practices could prove hazardous to your health.

All 911 calls in Wittmann get routed to Rural/Metro's Scottsdale communications center by MCSO. Both agencies are then supposed to alert the Wittmann Fire Department, but frequently do not. Or, the Rural/Metro ambulances arrive at about the same time as the Wittmann paramedics, even though they are 20 minutes away, suggesting that Rural/Metro is sending the ambulance several minutes before calling Wittmann.

"We had a little 7-year-old boy that laid on the floor and convulsed for 15 to 20 minutes," says Sherri Morales, a paramedic for the Wittmann Fire Department. "We were never called on that.

"We had a gentleman who lived three houses from my home," she continues. "My mom and myself are both EMT-Ds, and we were both at home. We did not get the call. What we got was a call from AMT for a flight man, which means that when they get in the area, they want someone to meet them so they don't get lost. We could have been there in a minute and a half. Instead, he laid there 25 minutes and died."
Morales speculates that Rural/AMT insists on getting its ambulances on scene as soon as possible to make sure that the volunteer EMTs don't talk a patient out of going to the hospital.

Fred Killingbeck, a resident of Wittmann who also works as area coordinator for Emergency Services at St. Joseph's Hospital, thinks that the Wittmann interloping is a marketing tool.

"It makes it easier to sell your product if you say, 'Look, we've been the first on the scene in all these calls, we're better for your community,'" he says.

On November 28, 1994, McDonald and his supervisor, John Taska, sat down for an "informal interview" with Rural/Metro executives and a Rural/Metro attorney to discuss the particulars of the investigation.

A transcript of that meeting reads like a Monty Python sketch, with Steven Savage, the Rural executive in charge of ambulance operations, and Lawrence Rosenfeld, the attorney, answering questions with questions. Specifically, they asked which statute each of the alleged offenses had violated.

Then McDonald brought up a tape-recorded conversation in which a Rural/Metro dispatcher told a PMT executive that he was under no obligation to send any particular ambulance company to a call. In fact, the dispatcher is obliged to do so.

Savage responded, ". . . It would be easy for [the dispatcher] to be confused with the fact that the City of Tucson and the City of Phoenix and a lot of other municipalities are dispatching any units they want to within their service area.

"They are not necessarily dispatching what I think you call 'the closest, most appropriate agency' to calls. They are dispatching their agency within their jurisdiction, or what they call their dispatch jurisdiction."
The problem is, Rural/Metro is a for-profit corporation, not a municipal agency. It does receive state funding to maintain its 911 equipment: $12,213 in 1995 for logging recorders; $188,563 in 1993 to upgrade its system (not counting monies received for its Tucson and Yuma operations).

But when it comes to questioning Rural about facts and figures, it suddenly becomes a private entity, despite the public monies that keep it in business.

McDonald alludes in his report to the difficulties in getting firm data and straight answers from Rural officials. The other private ambulance companies are even more frustrated.

"My real problem comes in when you're kind of acting like a public agency," says Roy Ryals of Southwest Ambulance, "and you're taking that trusted public role and then turning it into a private agenda without any oversight. And then when someone wants to know about something, then that's 'proprietary, we're a private company.'

"If you're dialing 911, you have the right to get the most appropriate ambulance."
One Rural/Metro paramedic put it more bluntly."It's your fucking life they're gambling with," he says.

The last apparent filing on the DHS investigation into Rural dispatch policies was an inconsequential memo of January 23, 1995, from McDonald to his boss. Then the investigation just quietly went away.

Steven Savage, the Rural/Metro vice president in charge of ambulance operations, says that the charges were dropped because they were invalid.

"They looked into it for a period of time, and John Taska [McDonald's boss at DHS] sat down with myself and Larry Rosenfeld [the Rural attorney], who works with us, and dropped the whole issue," says Savage. "They found there was no substance."
However, when New Times first tried to obtain copies of the investigative reports, DHS refused to turn them over on the grounds that it was an open case.

And though John Taska of DHS refused to talk to New Times, following orders from the DHS director, he did fax a terse memo to the newspaper.

"Allegations against Rural/Metro were not dismissed and remain under Department review," it read. "This is the only comment we will make."
Rumors circulating among ambulance companies point to Rural's friends in high places, specifically Kurt Davis, who spent 18 months as executive assistant to Governor Fife Symington before returning to his old job as national director of public affairs for Rural/Metro.

Davis vehemently denies that he even knew about the investigation, let alone went to bat for his Rural/Metro friends to get it squelched.

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