Riggs workers press county to reopen bid

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 18, 2012 

Tearful pleas and emotional testimony from Riggs Ambulance Service employees painted the backdrop for Tuesday's public hearing about Merced County's emergency ambulance contract.

"With Riggs, I'm a person -- not just a number," Sandee Koehler, a former longtime Riggs employee, said through tears.

"Please, I'm begging you -- throw out the bid and start over," Melissa Martin, the human resources manager for Riggs, urged the Board of Supervisors. (STORY CONTINUES AFTER VIDEO)

"If AMR comes in, that would mean I will lose my job," Sonya Severo, Riggs community service manager, said while wearing a "SAVE RAS" T-shirt.

Those comments were just three out of the 37 Riggs employees and supporters who rallied to save Riggs during Tuesday's meeting, which lasted more than four hours.

No decision was made about the contract during the meeting. The supervisors will meet again on Jan. 29 to consider possible action. Riggs extended its contract with the county until April 2013 to ensure service remains in place until a final decision is made.

Prior to hearing the appeals Tuesday afternoon, county officials laid out their reasons why American Medical Response was deemed the more responsive bidder and awarded the contract.

"In an effort for transparency, staff has prepared a presentation about the process," said Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi, before launching a slide presentation outlining both company's proposals and final scores.

A chunk of Grassi's presentation focused on emergency response times, "status zero" events, where no ambulances are available and "mutual aid" requests, when help is solicited from another agency or county.

"Data benchmarks are established by the Local Emergency Medical Services Agency -- or LEMSA -- to monitor how an EMS system is functioning," Grassi said, adding that Merced County is not the only one to monitor these standards, despite recent claims made by Riggs.

Grassi pointed out 147 mutual aid requests last year in which Riggs sought help from Stanislaus County, but only four instances where Stanislaus County requested mutual aid from Merced.

"Mutual aid is expected, but there should not be a reliance," Grassi said.

Riggs Ambulance Service General Manager Don Vonarx responded by saying Riggs' contract with Merced County requires them to dispatch the closest unit to respond, even if it's from another county.

However, Vonarx said Stanislaus County's contract does not require the same practice.

Grassi's presentation outlined Riggs' status-zero events from 2011, where the company had a monthly average of 48 status-zero events over five minutes and 30 status-zero events over 10 minutes.

Vonarx said status-zero events are not a measurable criteria, whereas response times are. Measuring status-zero events is not sophisticated, Vonarx added, saying that dispatchers may forget to write down when a status-zero ends.

The county staff said the relationship with West Side Ambulance District, which provides two ambulances to cover Gustine and Santa Nella, was another significant consideration.

Officials from West Side Ambulance have complained about Riggs' use of one of their ambulances in Los Banos, saying it leaves their area uncovered.

"Mutual aid is not there to support your operation in the county you're providing service in," said Dr. Jim Andrews, Merced County EMS medical director. "West Side Ambulance is supposed to take care of their area -- the west side. Using their ambulance puts them at a status zero."

Grassi said AMR's proposal will reduce the reliance on West Side Ambulance by placing two additional units in Los Banos, but that Riggs' proposal continued relying on West Side's resources without offering a strategy to address the mutual aid or status zero deficiencies.

Lastly, the county staff focused on the incumbent work force -- an estimated 45 support and administration employees that Riggs said will be displaced under AMR's contract.

According to AMR's proposal, they would hire the EMT and paramedic employees, and hire as many non-response workers as possible -- though there are no guarantees.

AMR officials told the supervisors that they'd hire Riggs' employees at a higher wage with shorter shifts.

County staff concluded the presentation by saying that AMR presented a superior system status plan, resolved the West Side Ambulance concerns, devoted more ambulances and agreed to hire the majority of Riggs' work force.

However, Riggs Ambulance Service President Kraig Riggs said the ambulance fees under the AMR contract would increase by 62 percent and the bidding process was "severely flawed and mishandled."

He also pointed out that three out of the five independent evaluators selected Riggs during the bidding process.

Riggs and his management team also consulted with an attorney, who said the state agency's letter to the county regarding the local vendor points was misinterpreted. The Concord-based attorney said the letter did not state the local vendor preference violated any state or federal laws.

"Let me tell you something, local preference is more than just a little tick on the application," said Dos Palos Mayor Johnny Mays. "Local preference is that which has been tried and tested. If you let this company (AMR) come in, you'll get the test drive, and you'll find out that it wasn't what you wanted."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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