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Who's going to be staffing Santa Barbara County's ambulances? Controversial issue still unsettled

Santa Barbara County is wrangling with who should provide ambulance services in the county.
Mikita Yo
Santa Barbara County is wrangling with who should provide ambulance services in the county.

Santa Barbara County's process gave highest score to company already holding contract, but County Supervisors lean towards County Fire Department.

It’s something you don’t think about, unless you need one. Exactly who is operating the ambulance that would come to you during a medical emergency? Depending on where you live in the Tri-Counties, it could be one of nearly a half dozen companies.

For most of Santa Barbara County, it’s been a company called American Medical Response (AMR) for more than a half-century. But now, the “who” of ambulance services in the county is at the center of a big controversy. The answer may end up being multiple providers.

County Supervisors decided about four years ago to put the contract up to bid, to try to get the best services possible. As expected, AMR put up a proposal to keep its operation. But, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department also put in a bid to provide ambulance services.

AMR said it would improve its technology, buy a fleet of 34 new ambulances, and have dedicated vehicles for those who need behavioral health services.

The County Fire Department countered that since it is at the scenes of emergencies anyway, it makes sense for it to have the contract. Plus, the addition of a new dedicated fire and ambulance dispatch facility would allow for faster coordinated response times.

After an internal county review, the AMR proposal was graded significantly higher. The Fire Department appealed twice, and was denied. But now, the issue is in the hands of Santa Barbara County Supervisors, who have the final say. The issue packed the supervisors hearing room Tuesday.

Loy Beardshore is with a Santa Barbara homeowners group.

"A fully integrated 911 response should include dispatch, EMS, and ambulance transport. We believe that the County Fire department is the best choice," said Beardshore.

Leon Olsen is a longtime Santa Barbara County resident.

"Our fire stations, being strategically located throughout the county would be a better place for ambulances to stage," said Olsen.

But, AMR officials say they have a solid, decades long track record. Mike Sanders is Regional Director.

"The results of the bid were clear...AMR won by over 300 points," said Sanders. "It's been a process that was well run, and entirely supported by all."

AMR Paramedic Brad Moore said he loves EMS.

"This is what I do. We have a great fire one is disputing that. But, I just wanted to tell you I'm excited about AMR's next proposal, and I look forward to making EMS even better," said Moore.

The situation left some County Supervisors in a quandary. They leaned towards the County Fire Department, but the bid process clearly favored AMR.

"No one has explained to me in public why one scored higher than they other," said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. "It looks like what the Board wants to do is throw the RFP out, and go down another can't do that in the private sector."

But, he said like other supervisors, he was inclined to go with using the County Fire department to provide the services.

County Supervisors ultimately decided not to grant an exclusive ambulance contract. They directed staff to come up with a non-exclusive multi-permit model.

That’s what Ventura County does, with three different providers. San Luis Obispo County has one countywide provider. And, while AMR is currently is Santa Barbara County’s primary provider, the county fire department already serves some areas like UCSB, the Cuyama Valley, and Vandenberg Village.

One big question mark is how AMR will respond to what the county’s staff comes up with, and what supervisors will do with it. How would the pie be divided if there are multiple providers?

It could be months before the county finally decides the future of the county's ambulance services.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.