Ariz. town announces $4.6M expansion of ambulance services
The expansion of Queen Creek Fire and Medical Department includes a $1.9-million outlay to purchase five new ambulances
By Mark Moran
East Valley Tribune
QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — With a decline in private EMS in town, the Queen Creek Fire and Medical Department is filling the gap.
It announced a vast $4.6 million expansion of its ambulance service, which includes a one-time $1.9-million outlay to purchase five new ambulances and $2.7-million dollars in ongoing operating expenses.
The units will be staffed with full-time, 24/7 paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
Fire Chief Vance Gray said "60-70% of the calls that we run are medical in nature."
"When we have medical calls, we never know what type of manpower we are going to need on those types of calls," he explained.
"Typically when we run a medical call, we will respond a fire truck and an ambulance because the ambulance is the transport unit to go to the hospital."
Gray said that figure mirrors the national numbers of emergency calls answered by comparable municipal departments — and that number that is on the rise.
"Those are all medical calls," he added. "They can be chest pain calls, cardiac arrest. Whatever those calls are in medical nature, they are falling between 60 and 70%."
Queen Creek Fire and Medical answered 6,118 calls for service in 2022 and of those, 4,115 were considered medical incidents. Of the EMS calls, 2,195 people required transportation to a hospital.
Gray said the department does not always have to send an ambulance to every medical call.
Fire truck crews are trained to handle many medical calls without the need for an ambulance and often a decision on whether to send one can be made during the 911 call.
"Those would be the more serious in nature types of calls like the cardiac arrest as an example," Gray said. "Where if a call comes in for a cardiac arrest, we will dispatch a fire truck and an ambulance because of the nature of the call, the severity of the call."
On the other hand, dispatching fire trucks less serious calls can save money.
"If we get dispatched to a call for somebody whose nose might be bleeding and there are no other priority symptoms, our fire trucks are dispatched...There is no transport to the hospital and no cost to pass along to the patient," Gray added.
When an ambulance is dispatched, the patient winds up responsible for the cost of that call.
Responses that only require a fire truck are not billed separately since they are covered by the taxpayer-funded fire department services, which is not the case with ambulance calls.
"When somebody is taken to the hospital, there is a charge for that service and it does not matter whether you are a municipal government or you are a private company," Gray explained.
Gray said the state maintains a detailed structure that sets fees for people who need an ambulance.
Until now, Queen Creek has relied largely on a a private ambulance company, American Medical Response, which has served neighboring communities as well.
But as municipalities have grown and started providing their own ambulance services, such as Gilbert, AMR has scaled back.
Queen Creek has had one ambulance in place since 2016, but as AMR's response times grew longer and the town kept growing, Gray said expansion was inevitable.
"We want to make sure that we provide a very consistent and high-quality level of service to our Queen Creek residents," Gray said. "And we began to realize some operational deficiencies.
"We were concerned with some response times and staffing levels that AMR was coming forward with.
"That is what's driving this. It's not that we are seeing a dramatic increase in the call volume in Queen Creek. We have a steady increase, but that is not what's driving this. We wanted to maintain the level of service to Queen Creek and we were seeing that suffer."
The chief said his staff started noticing those shortfalls a year ago, prompting the move to expand.
Gray said when Gilbert launched its own service, AMR removed the half dozen ambulances it had there and that had a domino effect region-wide.
"When you have fewer ambulances in the area or the region, that translates to a lower level of service," Gray said, adding the Gilbert-based ambulances often were used on Queen Creek calls.
"We would rely on neighboring agencies like AMR from Gilbert and if those are not available, that's what creates the concern over the lengthening response times," Gray said.
Queen Creek's new ambulances will be stationed at each of the town's five fire stations. Four will be staffed with a full-time paramedic and an EMT 24/7.
"The fifth ambulance will not be staffed," Gray added. "But what we will do is if we run into those scenarios where we need additional resources or ambulances, we can deploy that fifth ambulance within a 30-minute time frame."
"We haven't decided which fire station will have the unstaffed ambulance yet," he added.
The town plans to announce the expansion in coming weeks and will launch the service in July.
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