Southern Nevada firefighters took aim at a private ambulance service Monday, saying they wanted to "sound the alarm" over the services provided under contract to Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas residents.
It was the latest salvo in what is turning into a legal battle between American Medical Response and the firefighter unions -- who work together in the field but are now opponents in the legal system.
And it comes at a time when first responders are in the spotlight over wages and benefits, emergency medical services are seen as an area ripe for privatization and some fire departments are transporting more patients, which is a source of revenue.
AMR officials called the allegations "unfounded political attacks of distortion."
County officials said AMR met with requirements of the contract.
The skirmish started with a news release last month.
"Southern Nevada Residents had no Ambulance Service Over the Weekend" blared the headline over the release, which said American Medical Response sent a "service level zero" signal at 2:30 a.m. Sept. 12. That would mean no private ambulances were available for service. The firefighters say that status continued for several hours; AMR officials said there was no service outage.
In the release, Dean Fletcher, president of the Las Vegas firefighters union, and Jeff Hurley, head of the North Las Vegas firefighters union, accused the company of "trying to minimize overhead" and of having "no invested interest in the care and well-being of Southern Nevadans."
The release said the company's ambulances were not meeting a 12-minute response time, "and in some cases their response times have exceeded 20 minutes." Fletcher called the situation "utterly ridiculous," adding, "Southern Nevada is not a Third World country."
On Monday, Fletcher acknowledged that fire department crews were available that night to answer medical emergencies.
Mercy Inc., the parent company of AMR and Medic West, fired off a letter Sept. 16 calling the release "simply false" and "defamatory." The company -- which operates under the AMR name in Las Vegas -- demanded a public retraction and said, "AMR will take such further action as it deems necessary" if the retraction is not made.
"The firefighters' association should not make private companies such as AMR its victims in its ongoing public relations battle with local governments," the letter said.
The firefighters unions from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County placed an ad in Monday's Review-Journal demanding an apology from AMR and Medic West. The company is an "out of state multibillion-dollar Wall Street-traded firm" that "tried to shut us up with a lawsuit," the ad said.
"I made those statements that they were late and that they didn't have units to respond and they sometimes have calls that were longer than 20 minutes," Fletcher said. "I was threatened to be sued. That's why we did what we did."
AMR files monthly reports documenting its calls, and those show that AMR is meeting its contractual obligations by responding on time to more than 90 percent of calls. Most calls must be answered in under 12 minutes, although some calls come with a response time of under 20 minutes. There were late responses to both types of calls.
County spokesman Dan Kulin released a statement saying, "The ambulance companies' performance is closely monitored by the local governments. The companies continue to exceed the county's performance standards."
Fletcher said he is not disputing the numbers. He said Monday's action was a response to an AMR claim that its ambulances are always on time.
"They do meet their compliance," Fletcher said. "But they said they were never late."
He pointed to a live television news report in which a reporter, not someone from the ambulance company, said the company "always" meets response targets.
AMR issued a statement Monday night saying it has consistently met contract requirements and has maintained 100 percent contract compliance, averaging approximately 7 minutes to reach patients. With more than 150,000 calls a year for emergency ambulance services, AMR operates in one of the largest high-performance systems in the nation, it said.
"AMR is disappointed with what we believe are unfounded political attacks of distortion by the Fire Unions to drive its agenda and to take away private sector jobs. We are extremely proud of our EMTs and paramedics. Our EMTs and paramedics serve the citizens and area professionally, honorably, and provide excellent clinical care," General Manager Mike Gorman said.
"AMR has provided emergency ambulance services in Clark County for decades and has consistently provided superior performance," Gorman said. "Our crews live in this County, their families live in this County and they would never let their community down."
The three jurisdictions involved have a dual-response emergency medical system. When a medical call comes in, teams are dispatched from the nearest fire department, and a private ambulance is dispatched too. The fire department's response time goals are faster: four minutes to eight minutes.
The system allows fire department ambulances to return to duty instead of having to transport patients to the hospital, which can take up a lot of time. But if a patient is in need of immediate care, the fire department will do the transporting.
The recession has put firefighters in the spotlight. A sour economy has cut public revenues, and workers are being asked to take cuts. Because of overtime, firefighters average more than $100,000 in salary annually.
Clark County firefighters are headed to arbitration after a dispute over a new labor contract. Las Vegas' firefighters went through a similar process before agreeing to some cuts, and part of their compromise includes a promise from city officials that they will not study privatizing emergency medical services in the city for the next two years. And the Las Vegas Fire Department has been transporting more patients, Fletcher said.
A county panel proposed outsourcing emergency medical services as a cost-saving measure, and North Las Vegas came up with a plan for its responders to transport more patients so the city could bill for the services. The North Las Vegas City Council put that plan on hold.
Contact reporter Alan Choate at email@example.com or 702-229-6435.