Keith Kadle, Jacksonville’s interim fire chief, wants to know how much ambulance service the city is ready to provide.
That’s because since the city’s hospital closed in June, the Jacksonville Fire Department’s ambulance fuel costs and travel times have jumped. With the service stretched thin, the city has nearly reached a crossroad: Either buy another ambulance and hire more first responders to man it or contract the service out to offer full coverage in the city.
The Jacksonville City Council broached the subject during a called budget meeting on Thursday.
“We need to look at the best service to provide for residents,” said Councilman Tony Taylor, who is also a retired chief of the Anniston Fire Department. “Since the hospital is gone, we either need to go full blast with our ambulance service or contract it out.”
Regional Medical Center in Anniston closed the Jacksonville hospital June 30, citing insufficient revenue and rising health care costs.
Kadle said that RMC’s emergency room has managed to take patients more quickly than he thought would happen when the Jacksonville hospital closed. Doing so means the department’s ambulance can return to service faster.
“RMC has done a good job to prioritize,” Kadle said.
Edith Trammell, emergency room nurse manager at RMC, said the ER hasn’t changed its protocols since the Jacksonville hospital closed.
“We make every effort every day to get the EMS squads out … and back into their respective communities as quickly as possible,” Trammell said. “Our normal operations have been effective in managing the average volumes we see on a daily basis … we work with EMS to redirect patients when our volumes are extremely high, so that patients can receive the most appropriate treatment in the least amount of time.”
Still, the department’s ambulance must travel farther more often now. Kadle said that in the last two months, fuel costs have risen because patients must be taken to Anniston or Gadsden.
“A lot of the calls are going to Gadsden more than I thought they would,” Kadle said. “Now a round trip for an ambulance is 24 miles or closer to 60 miles.”
Kadle said the problem is exacerbated since the department only has one of its two ambulances in service during a shift. Due to the longer travel times, in the last two months the department has had to rely more heavily on Piedmont Rescue Squad to cover service calls in the city while the Jacksonville ambulance is away, Kadle said.
The rescue squad currently has a station in Jacksonville so it can easily respond to calls in the city. However, with the hospital closed, the rescue squad might close that station, leaving Jacksonville more in a bind, said Mayor Johnny Smith.
“With the hospital closed, we’re concerned that they won’t keep an ambulance in town,” Smith said. “We have talked to Piedmont Rescue and they have agreed to continue here for a while, but a lot of their business in town was to the hospital … it might be a situation where it’s not profitable to keep an ambulance here.”
Attempts to reach Piedmont Rescue Squad for comment were unsuccessful on Friday.
If Piedmont were to leave, the department would need a third ambulance to keep services up at their current level.
“I’d like to add another ambulance and three people for it at a minimum,” Kadle said.
The other, possibly cheaper option would be to contract the ambulance service to an outside agency. However, the city would lose control of the service it’s provided for years.
“I think it’s something we probably need to look at, but I’d rather us hold onto it,” Smith said of the ambulance service.