The Herald, Sharon, PA Published Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002


Ambulance service scrutinized
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Shutdowns bring consequences

By Felicia A. Petro
Allied News Staff Writer

Grove City Area Life Support's stations in the Grove City and Greenville areas were closed for 48 hours last week, following the permanent December closing of its Mercer station. That has cost the ambulance service its spot on Mercer County 911's callout list and may bring sanctions from the state.

On Monday, 911 Director James R. Thompson said he faxed officials in 13 municipalities asking what they wanted to do about keeping the ambulance service on the 911 rotation in their communities. The faxes were in response to the sudden halt to service from the Greenville and Pine Township stations from Jan. 22 to 24, he said.

Municipal governments approve ambulance services for 911 callout to keep competition among services as fair as possible. 911 dispatchers use the list when callers do not state an ambulance preference. If the ambulance service is interrupted -- even short-term -- the service must return to local officials and ask to be put back on the rotation list, Thompson said.

"Naturally, if someone requests (Grove City Area Life Support), we'll use them, or if we need them somewhere," he said.

Not being on 911's rotation is costing the service one or two additional calls a day, Thompson said. "It's a small part of the business." A service's main revenue comes through its contracts for transportation with nursing homes and hospitals and from memberships. Grove City Life Support claims 5,000 members.

However, a director for Meadville-based EMMCO West, which monitors ambulance services, said the state requires services to give 90 days' notice when they cease operations.

Richard Gibbons said, "Failure to do that is a critical violation," but he would not confirm an investigation into Grove City Life Support's 48-hour closing.

The service also permanently closed its Mercer station without notice on Dec. 27, claiming low call volume was crippling operations. That station served Mercer and Jefferson, Coolspring and East Lackawannock townships.

Gibbons also would not confirm an investigation into that closing, but said, hypothetically, "Without a proper notice, and failing to provide service 24 hours, seven days a week is a huge concern for (EMMCO)."

EMMCO reports potential violations to the state Department of Health, which would decide if an investigation is warranted, Gibbons said. If so, EMMCO would investigate and forward a recommendation to the health department, which would decide whether to revoke a license or put the service's license on temporary or provisional status.

As of Monday, the service's license was fully operating.

Health department spokesman Richard McGarvey said Grove City Life Support is not under investigation. But, he said, the agency has been working with the service's staffing problems for more than a month.

"With advanced life support, we have to have 24-hour coverage, seven days a week," he said. At least two people that are emergency medical technicians, paramedics or higher must be on staff at all times.

"That's more of a personnel problem, not an investigation," McGarvey said. "They have to keep those levels to be operating."

Grove City Life Support operations manager Basil Hoffman has said the service has 46 part-time and full-time employees. Last week's 48-hour shutdown was due to a lapse in workers' compensation insurance, he added. "We're still trying to figure out (why)."

Hoffman said he also sent letters to the municipalities "explaining what happened."

The service dropped its private insurance carrier and went with a state program, he said. "We were assured this wouldn't happen again."

Besides EMMCO West, the health department, 911 and municipal governments, Grove City Life Support also faces a problem with the state Public Utility Commission.

The PUC has fined it for not carrying a license for its wheelchair vans, said Verna Edmonds in the PUC press office.

The service is "not registered with the PUC," she said, explaining that motor carriers who transport individuals must be regulated for things like rates, safety, insurance and customer service.

The PUC sent the service two warning letters and then imposed fines, she said.

"If they continue to do business without having license from the PUC, it's possible to do a criminal complaint against them," she said.

Or, after an investigation, the PUC could fine the service again for not applying for the $350 license, she added.

Hoffman said Grove City Life Support applied twice for the PUC license and was denied. It does not operate its wheelchair vans, he said.

Ms. Edmonds said no record was found of those applications.

After returning from its 48-hour shutdown, Hoffman surmised that the ambulance service probably lost $5,000. "It's unfortunate that this had to occur with the insurance." A dispatcher was placed at the station for 24 hours to guide private callers to another service, he said.

Shutting down a facility "is the responsible thing to do when you can't meet staffing requirements," said the health department's McGarvey.

But a 48-hour shutdown seemed strange to Thompson. "I've been here for six years," he said. "I wouldn't say this is normal, at least not normal for this area."

When the Mercer station was closed, he said, he believes Grove City Life Support should have given the required 90-day notice. "They should have had more respect for the community," he said. "If they were the only service in Mercer, what would they do then?"

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