MERCED — As the spotlight focuses on Riggs Ambulance Service and its fight to get the Merced County contract, concerns have been raised about the 60-year provider's service.
"Many of my constituents have been displeased with the service that Riggs has provided," said county Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. "In Riggs' defense, they're covering the entire county -- it's balancing and I acknowledge that -- but sometimes there's things that fall through the cracks."
Riggs officials, however, point out that the Merced-based operation has met its contract requirements and exceeded 90 percent compliance in response times over the past nine years.
But residents of Gustine, who pay a special tax to the county for the ambulance service, often see an ambulance from Patterson, in Stanislaus County, answering their calls.
"People don't like to see a Patterson city ambulance in an area where they know they're paying a tax for a Merced County ambulance," Kelsey said.
Riggs has 10 ambulances, including two from West Side Ambulance District -- a subcontractor with Riggs.
According to Eric Watts, West Side's chief of operations, the two ambulances were designated for Newman, Gustine, Stevinson and Santa Nella -- but the Gustine unit is often dispatched to Los Banos, about 20 miles away.
Watts added that this is part of the contract with Riggs, and his district has no choice in the matter. But, he said, the constant shuffling leaves his area without an ambulance.
"I still have a responsibility to cover my own district, even though they're utilizing our services. The subcontract we have with Riggs over the last 10 years has been substandard," Watts said. "Our district and the taxpayers have taken the hit by Riggs using us and taking my only unit to Los Banos."
Watts said his district will not approve an extension to its subcontract, which ends this month, until both sides negotiate changes in the utilization of units and crew convenience.
"I worry about fatigue because it's my job to make sure my crews aren't getting beat up by the constant driving around," he said.
Gustine Mayor Dennis Brazil said he has heard the same concerns, and has relayed them to the appropriate county officials.
"The citizens of Gustine have continually told myself and city staff that they see the West Side ambulance posted somewhere in the Los Banos vicinity," Brazil said. "Our response is that we've passed on that information to our supervisor (Kelsey) and West Side Ambulance officials because the contract is controlled under the county."
Riggs Ambulance Service is monitored by a Local EMS Agency, which provides oversight by handling patient care complaints, ensuring contract compliance and that Riggs is meeting delivery of service requirements, including response times.
Among other responsibilities, a big part of LEMSA's job is to determine whether the ambulance provider has adequate resources available if needed.
"Our job is to make sure we have enough ambulances to support the call volume," said Linda Diaz, emergency medical services manager.
But according to LEMSA's monthly performance reports, Riggs has not consistently met the volume of calls, often requiring "mutual aid" or help from other agencies.
One of the agencies used to cover calls is American Medical Response from Stanislaus County -- the company competing for the Merced County contract.
In the most recent report made available to the Sun-Star, Riggs used mutual aid 19 times in April. Of those requests, AMR responded to 14 of them.
Riggs met its overall compliance for call response times by 93.57 percent, but there were 83 instances during the month when Riggs had zero ambulances available, seven of them in West Side Ambulance District.
Reports from last year paint the same picture.
Based on the average of six monthly reports from April 2011 to December 2011, Riggs met its compliance by 93.52 percent, but required mutual aid an average of 14 times per month with no ambulances available 72 times per month.
President Kraig Riggs said a "Status 0," which means there are no ambulances available, doesn't happen all that often, given the scope of total calls received.
"It only happens 1 percent of the time," Riggs said. "And 80 percent of that time, nothing major happens."
Don Vonarx, general manager of Riggs, added that its contract with the county requires it to report all Status 0 events -- which he said is unusual.
"We believe we are one of the only ambulance services that even report Status 0," Vonarx said. "We're not required to be on the scene 100 percent of the time -- no ambulance provider is. But our data shows during about 80 percent of the Status 0, there are no 911 calls or we get there within the allotted time frame."
Vonarx added that Riggs' response time for life-threatening calls in urban areas has been 94 percent in 2012.
When it comes to requesting mutual aid, Vonarx said, Riggs is "required by county policy to contact and dispatch the closest ambulance, even if that happens to be another provider," including AMR.
But borrowing ambulances from other counties creates strain on them, according to Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini.
"Every ambulance is required to provide an adequate level of service, but Riggs is not doing that -- and it's impacting other cities," he said. "The problem is they're not able to handle the volume of calls and it creates a ripple effect that affects other cities like Patterson and Ceres."
According to Dana Solomon, the California Ambulance Association's program director, what's happening with Riggs is not uncommon in other counties.
"I do have to say we've had mom-and-pop, smaller companies that have sold to AMR or other larger companies," Solomon said, adding that it happened in Napa County recently. Although AMR is not the provider for Napa, it won its bid against a 40-year incumbent.
"Riggs has provided excellent service to folks in Merced. It's unfortunate because when a larger corporation like this comes into town, it can displace a large amount of talented employees."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.
Riggs Ambulance Service's record
Response time compliance 93.57 percent
Mutual aid requests 19
Status 0 occurrence s83
Response time compliance 95.50 percent
Mutual aid requests 13
Status 0 occurrences 87
Response time compliance 94.36 percent
Mutual aid requests 14
Status 0 occurrences 80
Response time compliance 95.58 percent
Mutual aid requests 18
Status 0 occurrences 62