Laguna Beach ambulance fleet stands by to relieve contractor

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Laguna Beach Fire Department ambulances await service at Fire Station 1. Photo courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

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 Doctor’s Ambulance responds to a call for service from Fire Station 1 on June 21, 2022. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

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.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The fire dept is the right place for Paramedic transport service but not staffed with ambulance operators.

    There should be a Mobile Intensive Care Unit staffed with a minimum of 2 Paramedic Firefighters and ideally 1 Firefighter EMT driver.

    These units respond with an engine to fire supression or EMS calls as a company as needed. Thus, manning on fire engines can be safely reduced to better allocate finances to accomplish the primary stated mission of a fire dept…to save lives.

  2. It’s a bit of a hatchet job. True the AO position tense to be a Segway position. It’s not like fire department ambulance operator positions are not spring boards for other fire agencies. Even organizations such as LA city fire department have a difficulty retaining their paramedics. Most firefighters do not want to work for an agency that provides its own ambulance transport. The fire service model prefers to run their employees into the ground until they’re left wondering why they are having a difficult time with retention. It is a completely different animal working 24 hours riding the penalty box in comparison to riding the fire engine. The primary response areas are greater, so is the the demand for ambulances. Orange county citizens already view their taxes to be elevated as it is. Good luck making the sale to the citizens knowing that they are getting double dipped on by having to pay for the maintenance upkeep and overtime services. While organizations may not like this, the private ambulance model is somewhat self-sustaining. They pay to operate within a certain geographic location and generate revenue by their interfacility transport. A blended model would be most beneficial for both are fire department and private ambulances. Having the fire service run the ambulance transport Is nothing but a cash grab. It is a last ditch effort to retain its city contracted services.

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