A line of American Medical Response ambulances sits at the local AMR headquarters in Woodway a day before the new EMS provider started work in the area Aug. 1. Local first responders have since raised concerns about AMR’s responses and lack of available ambulances.

When Beverly Hills Police Chief Thomas Schmidt arrived at a local home after a 911 call from a pregnant woman in labor, he knew the baby was coming.

“I believe she called for an ambulance but couldn’t get through, so she called 911,” Schmidt said. “I got there and pretty much that baby was coming, so I called dispatch back asking where is the ambulance?”

Dispatchers told him American Medical Response, the new ambulance service in McLennan County, was supposed to have an ambulance on the way to the home, Schmidt said. But after another eight minutes went by and no ambulance arrived, he decided to take the woman to the hospital himself, he said.

“I sat her in the back of my patrol car and I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been an EMT long enough, we cannot wait,’” Schmidt said. “I told dispatch to call (Baylor Scott & White) Hillcrest (Medical Center) and have them on standby, because I am coming in with a woman who is going to have a baby really quick.”

Schmidt’s experience with a delayed ambulance is not the first since AMR took over emergency medical services Aug. 1 for Waco, Bellmead, Beverly Hills, Hewitt, Lacy Lakeview, Robinson, Woodway and unincorporated parts of the county. AMR took the reins from East Texas Medical Center, which had served the area since 2003.

Slow AMR response times for patients in need have been a growing cause of concern for many local first responders, Schmidt said.

But AMR Regional Director Robert Saunders said unforeseen staffing issues have been resolved, and he is confident the company will meet its response-time requirements. AMR’s paramedics and EMTs remain dedicated to their work providing lifesaving care, Saunders said.

“We were a little more understaffed when we came in than we thought,” he said. “We are now fully staffed as of (Monday) and then on November 3, because of some transfers and other things, we are going to be adding another truck in the Waco area to help out.”

Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum, who serves as chair of the Emergency Medical Services Committee overseeing AMR’s response to the cities, said an internal database was created to capture concerns and notations from local first responders.

Since Aug. 21, first responders have filed about 54 notations in the database, many citing dissatisfaction with the new provider.

“That person who calls 911 is expecting an immediate response and it is not acceptable to not respond. There is no second chance in responses,” Tatum said. “The fire department provides basic life care, but medical responders provide invasive life support and transportation for people who need immediate medical care.”

AMR’s contract require it to submit monthly reports with call volume and response times, but the committee has yet to receive a report after members agreed to a 90-day grace period, Tatum said.

That means a detailed look at response times is difficult, but the growing list of notations in the internal database is concerning, he said.

“Without that report, we cannot address any concerns that might come up or check to see where the concern really started from,” Tatum said. “We are going to hold their feet to the fire and we gave them a hard deadline to have the report to us by Nov. 10 so we can have some actual information.”

Despite the lack of hard data, Hewitt Fire Chief Lance Bracco said Hewitt residents have experienced the delayed AMR response times first hand. For example, Hewitt fire crews requested an AMR response at 9:41 a.m. Sept. 29, and emergency call notes state AMR arrived at 11:21 a.m. On an unrelated call the same day, AMR was requested at 10:47 a.m. and arrived at 11:48 a.m., according to call notes.

“It has been very concerning for me, because AMR provides care for our citizens,” Bracco said. “I understand it takes a while to get going. I totally get that, so we are trying to be patient, because some of these cases could be life or death.”

According to AMR’s contact, ambulance response times in the cities are mandated to be less than nine minutes about 90 percent of the time for priority 1 calls, where immediate response is needed. For less dire priority 2 calls, an ambulance must arrive in less than 13 minutes about 90 percent of the time.

In Robinson, city secretary Jana Lewellen said dispatch call times for AMR indicate crews were on scene when Robinson Volunteer Fire Department or police arrived in many instances. However, of the 35 medical calls between Sept. 17 and Oct. 23, AMR response times averaged almost 11 minutes, with some ranging up to 34 minutes.

Waco Fire Department responded to more than 10,300 medical calls in 2017. So far this year, fire crews have responded to more than 9,300 medical calls, Waco fire Deputy Chief R.M. Bergerson said. On many of the fire department’s medical calls, AMR is requested to provide more involved medical assistance, including invasive life support measures.

“There are certainly breakdowns in the system, whether that is the dispatching end or number of available EMS units, but it is certainly something that, with the frequency it is occurring, it is a little more alarming,” Bergerson said. “We are used to getting on scene first and waiting for an ambulance, but when those times become extended, it can affect other services.”

Tatum said all emergency responders are willing to work with AMR as “growing pains” are worked out. He said the committee has discussed concerns with AMR staff and will continue to hold monthly meetings with AMR staff to head off concerns early.

“We felt like AMR would provide better quality of care, because we are always looking to improve the level of services we provide,” Tatum said. “I am confident AMR can deliver, but I think these are just the growing pains of starting a new operation.”

Saunders, the AMR regional director, said AMR staff members have looked into many of the communication and availability issues in the last two months, and staffing issues have subsided. With added resources starting service Nov. 3, concerns should be reduced, he said.

“I have no worry whatsoever with all the trucks we now have on the streets that we will will be able to make call times,” Saunders said. “Our main concern is the patients, and I believe our paramedics and EMTs are the best out there, the best trained and have the best equipment.

“The citizens are safe. We are still out there working calls, and things will keep getting better and better.”

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Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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