HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - In Harrison County, American Medical Response has provided emergency care and transport for dozens of years, but some people say that service could be better.
The contract between the county and AMR is very specific about response times. Ambulances have to respond to calls in the cities within seven minutes and 59 seconds. In rural areas of the county, they have to be on scene within 16 minutes and 59 seconds. Other areas have different times. After filing a public records request asking for response data from the past two years, I found out there a lot of exceptions to this rule.
By most accounts, AMR provides good service in Harrison County. Response times are below the national average. But in the contract is language that allows for exceptions. In other words, when an exception happens, the response time requirements don't have to be met.
Here's an example: In 2014, AMR responded to 34,062 calls, meeting the response time goal about 90 percent of the time. Those numbers look impressive, but here's the catch: AMR claimed 5,493 exceptions in 2014, a rate of 16 percent of all calls.
Let's dig a little deeper into the numbers. On June 21, 2014, a call in Biloxi came in at 7:04pm. The ambulance arrived at 7:44pm, 40 minutes later. On July 26, 2014, a call in Gulfport came in at 3:18pm. It took 32 minutes for the ambulance to get to the scene at 5:50pm. On July 11, 2014, a call in Harrison County was received at 5:32pm. Arrival time was 6:03pm, 31 minutes later.
Those are just a portion of the more than 5,000 exceptions. So what are the exceptions? The vast majority of them are multiple emergencies, when four or more ambulances are called out at the same time. Other exceptions include train delays, severe weather, road construction. insufficient addresses and scenes not safe.
AMR officials defend the company's performance saying the average response time in 2014 was 8 minutes and 25 seconds, well within the guidelines set by the county. There's no doubt AMR is fulfilling the terms of the contract, and even exceeding it. But all of the exceptions are catching some county supervisors by surprise. It's in a report they don't even receive.
"I think we have to be careful and we do need to look at nuances," Supervisor Marlin Ladner said. "This contract, of course, will expire at the end of the year . And I think it's an opportunity for the board to review the conditions on those contracts and make sure the conditions are being abided by and maybe possibly improved upon," Ladner said.
Has he received any complaints?
"I have not. I have not received any complaints from any constituents that I have."
Connie Rockco is the board president. She was also not aware of all the exceptions.
"I think we should take a closer look at it. However, I do not know what the circumstances are and knowing the circumstances and getting an explanation is important and I'm glad that this was brought to our attention," Rockco explained.
She also said the timing is important.
"I think we will be taking a closer look at the contract, as we always do when it goes out for proposals and that their time is up."
Gregory Doyle is the EMS Chief for AMR. He said the company is willing to be an open book for any elected official.
"Any supervisor, any city leader is welcome to question us on exceptions. They can ask us for an explanation on any single exception or a group of exceptions and we're glad to provide that information to them," Doyle said.
The concerns go beyond the boardroom, and into the Gulfport Fire Department, where Michael Beyerstedt is the chief.
"My concern is not the definition of what an exception is. My concern, if there is a concern, is the times and numbers of exceptions that we do have," Chief Beyerstedt explained.
He added that communicating that concern is critical.
"I feel it's my responsibility as the fire chief for the city of Gulfport to keep in constant contact with the people at AMR. So we do have a regular discussion on response times."
Those response times are improving, and exceptions are falling, down to 271 last month. There's a reason for the drop, according to Doyle.
"Right now, we've added about four ambulances per day and we're aggressively recruiting staffing from across the country. We're working very hard to put these additional ambulances on the road when they're needed the most in our system," Doyle said.
Now supervisors admit they need to take a closer look at contracts that the county signs, not just with AMR but with all contracts. However, the board attorney who represents the supervisors, Tim Holleman, said that's easier said than done.
"It's almost an impossible task for somebody to know everything, anybody for that matter. They rely on the county employees and the department heads that arrange these contracts and servicing them to advise them as to what's going on, the status of a contract."
AMR response time concerns are not just limited to Harrison County. In recent months, the cities of Brandon and Pearl have ended contracts with AMR over similar concerns. Meanwhile, city leaders in Jackson, and nearby Ridgeland, both currently served by AMR, are also considering contracting with another ambulance service to provide emergency medical care.
We also made a comparison with the service provided by Acadian Ambulance in Jackson County. Last year, Acadian responded to 11,385 calls in the county. The company claimed a total of 396 exceptions, all of which have to be approved by the county's emergency management director, Earl Etheridge.
It should be pointed out that response times required of Acadian under the contract with Jackson County are significantly higher than AMR in Harrison County, as much as 20 minutes in some areas.