After 25 years of responding to 911 calls for service about medical emergencies, traffic collisions, injured swimmers, and more—a Doctor’s Ambulance is slated to depart Fire Station 1 for the last time Friday.
The contracted white-and-blue blue ambulances will be replaced with red ambulances crewed by an in-house team of ambulance operators employed by the Laguna Beach Fire Department. This milestone represents a substantial pivot for Laguna Beach to slash response times even as many cities have chosen to outsource public safety to regional agencies.
“I think we’re going to get a lot better service in our town,” Mayor Sue Kempf said. “We’ll have a much better response having our own ambulance service that we’ll have full control of.”
The new program will annually cost Laguna Beach taxpayers $1.8 million, which includes salaries and benefits for 18 ambulance operators; 12 full-time and six part-time. An ambulance coordinator serves the program’s management and scheduling needs.
A Doctor’s Ambulance was scheduled to depart the apparatus bay at Fire Station 1 at 6:59 a.m. on Friday. A minute later, a Laguna Beach ambulance crew is slated to pull into the bay and make itself available for service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A second ambulance crew will be on duty 24 hours a day a Fire Station 4. The department can also staff a third ambulance at Fire Station 2 during times of high call volume, Administrative Fire Capt. Eric Lether said.
Ambulance operators official training started June 13 and included driving and growing familiar with the City’s access impaired streets, wilderness trailheads, and beach access stairs.
“A quicker ambulance response and arrival time within our community means a more efficient and effective medical response and transport to the hospital, which is better for those needing medical care,” Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia wrote in an email.
Some Laguna Beach residents could see the base rate for an ambulance ride spike from $965 to $2,800 to significantly reduce or eliminate a subsidy from the General Fund. The rate increase will not affect costs for Medicare of Medical users, Garcia said.
In December, Garcia emphasized caring for patients will always take priority over someone’s ability to pay.
“Anyone who needs an ambulance gets an ambulance. That’s not a concern and never will be a concern,” Garcia said.
Federal funding to transport indigent patients will help cover the program’s costs.
Earlier this year, city staffers conducted a cost-benefit analysis for staffing ambulances with firefighter paramedics rather than ambulance operators, who tend to use the position as a stepping stone in their careers. A preliminary estimate for crewing city ambulances with paramedic firefighters would be about double the cost of ambulance operators, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said. The paramedic alternative was later shelved.
The Orange County Fire Authority is generally pretty good in how it standardizes services in the various contracting cities but local control remains attractive to municipal leaders, Steven Jensen, a retired firefighter and Cal State University professor in the Emergency Services Administration program at Long Beach.
“During the pandemic, you’ve seen more centralization of these services. It’s a headache and most cities would rather just write a check to OCFA,” Jensen said.
Collection of unpaid bills for ambulance rides is a stubborn challenge for all cities with in-house ambulance teams, Jensen said. Ambulance operators also widely use the position as a jumping point to more lucrative jobs in the fire service.
Ambulance teams driving from outside may face impaired access on Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.
“It could be a problem in a disaster so having a basic life system could be a benefit in a scenario like that,” Jensen said.
Laguna Beach received applications from over 200 candidates for the ambulance operator position.
“It’s remarkable that we have that much interest. It says a lot about what people think is important,” Kempf said.
Falck Mobile Health Corp. will continue to operate an ambulance servicing Emerald Bay residents.