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Emergency Services News

EOA Coming Apart at the Seams; Ambulance Staffing Problems; Siren Test Fails Miserably; Forest Service Refusing to Reimburse Local Fire Agencies for Strike Teams. Plus: Fire Department’s Popular “Living With Wildfire” Series; and a New Tent Application Process.

The “Exclusive Operating Area” for inland ambulance services is starting to come apart at the seams. Not only has the inland ambulance picture on which it was based changed dramatically, but complicated pieces required to implement the idea are becoming increasingly problematic. 

A few years ago, the large international Denmark-based medical services outfit called Falck Inc. (also known locally as Verihealth for a while) started responding to inland ambulance calls at the same time that the longtime local outfit MedStar did, creating artificial competition and reduced revenues for both outfits. Verihealth seemed to want to horn in on our rural ambulance business, a dubious business proposition to begin with even if successful. After a while somebody proposed that contracting with one single contractor for "exclusive" ambulance services would solve that dual-response problem. 

After years of costly and tedious planning and preparation, Mendocino County finally released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Exclusive Operating Area in February — but by that time Falck had already withdrawn one of their ambulances from Mendocino County (Covelo). Then last week we heard that Falck had removed another one and was planning to leave Mendocino County entirely and focus on a more lucrative contract in Alameda County — high traffic accident volume is the, well, lifeblood of these larger outfits. 

Falck’s latest departure has left the Highway 101 corridor with barely enough ambulances to cover calls and a significant shortage in paramedics. In addition, the Sonoma County-based Coastal Valley Emergency Medical Services outfit managed by Sonoma County but which has provided administrative and technical support to Mendocino County ambulance services has announced that it will cost Mendocino County something like three times more than it has in the past for a year's worth of their support — maybe $200k more than last year, money that Mendocino County probably doesn't have. (Unless they roll back their big executive raises and don’t pay Alicia Bales et al for the dubious climate change committee.)

In theory, each area/county is supposed to have its own "local emergency management services agency" (LEMSA). But with these latest developments, it's not clear if Coastal Valley will provide that service starting in July. Mendocino supervisors and the CEO have been talking about setting up a joint powers LEMSA with other counties, but even if they find a couple of neighboring counties to rope into that idea, there is no way it could be arranged by July 1.

Upshot: Not only is the Exclusive Operating Area no longer required, but even if it was, contract administration and technical oversight would be very difficult, if not impossible, to arrange. 

Meanwhile, Anderson Valley’s local ambulance service is finding it increasingly difficult to cover all the shifts — 14 twelve-hour shifts per week — with qualified volunteers occasionally supplemented by a paramedic out of Ukiah. Although Anderson Valley’s local ambulance department seems now to be financially stable, the improved financial picture is not much help in recruiting and retaining ambulance volunteer EMTs who still need to undergo substantial training and meet more and more qualification requirements.

Across the County, fragile fire and ambulance organizations continue to operate despite straining under staffing shortages, increased technical training requirements, minimum funding, and administrative confusion.

From the minutes of the Anderson Valley Fire Protection Committee meeting on May 1: “Siren test results: the siren test at Rancho Navarro recently failed miserably because the sound was inaudible in many locations, weak in others.” So, the Fire Protection Committee, which had been skeptical of the siren idea to begin with, along Fire Chief Andres Avila, recommended that the AV Community Services District board withdraw from their participation in the County’s siren grant application. 

According to Chief Avila, they simulated a siren set up with one of the proposed $25k sirens in April in Rancho Navarro along with a representative from the manufacturer and, "You could barely hear it," said Avila, adding that “if someone had a game on or was inebriated or the wind was blowing it probably wouldn't wake anyone up.” A little farther away, nobody could hear it at all. Avila estimated that it would take five or six sirens just to cover Rancho Navarro, a prohibitively expensive prospect. "It's not what we thought it would be,” said Avila, “and unless they can come up with an improved model we recommend withdrawal from the program." Representatives from Yorkville who had initially supported the idea and were willing to put up a quarter of the cost for their local match, also agreed to withdraw. Wednesday night, the CSD board voted unanimously to withdraw. 

The US Forest Service announced recently that they no longer plan to reimburse local fire agencies for volunteers who go on strike teams to fight fires on federal land. At the moment, the Anderson Valley Fire Department is still waiting to be reimbursed for their response to last year’s "Delta fire" on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest up north. The (Trump?) Forest Service seems tone deaf to the likelihood that volunteer fire departments and volunteer firefighters are unlikely to respond to faraway forest fires for free. Fire Chief Avila is working with the California Office of Emergency Services about being reimbursed for last year's response which was provided on the promise that the volunteers would be paid while on duty. Surely they can’t renege on that, can they?

The AV Fire Department has conducted three presentations entitled "Living with Wildfire in the Navarro watershed," this month. Turnout has been pretty good. Topics covered include fire behavior, home hardening, property management, egress, notification, and how to organize a neighborhood. The fire department is planning to follow up with mapping support, site visits and quarterly meetings at the firehouse to track progress and provide updates. We hope to have a report on the presentation(s) from the organizers in the next week or two. 

The AV Fire Department has a new "online tent permit application" process with which tent rental agencies can plan and arrange for larger local events. The primary tent rental companies in the area can apply for tent permits during which a variety of standard and routine traffic and safety factors are considered and planned for. The typical $98 permit fee is covered as part of the tent rental company’s rental charge to the event organizer — the first of which, for the upcoming Pinot Festival at Camp Navarro, has already been completed.


  1. David Roderick May 23, 2019

    Regards ambulance and EMS provision, this is the financial responsibility of Mendocino County, by law. When will we have the first death attributed to a non-response call? Who will get sued? The taxpayers of Mendocino County must demand the redistribution of the County Public Safety budget to equitably fund our County Fire Districts and the Emergency Medical Services they have been providing for free for the last half-century or more. The County Board of Supervisors knows this, but won’t do anything about it. It’s time to tell them to do it.

    • Mark Scaramella Post author | May 23, 2019

      I think the County did “redistribute” some of the Prop 172 money. Grudgingly. And still subject to annual review. And they donate the so-called “ALS” grant, which also helps in a few areas. But the underlying problems remain unsolved and still underfunded.

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