Ambulance angst

The two existing ambulance companies in Chico are fending off competition from a new entry into the medical-transport market.

Michael Parker, president and chief operating officer of the would-be interloper, Priority One, insists his motivations for setting up shop in Butte County are more altruistic than financial.

“I decided it was in the best interest of the community to bring Priority One,” Parker said. He said fire department employees contacted him “quite concerned about response times.”

Priority One, which has already advertised for employees here, hopes to start out in South Oroville and then branch out to Chico and Paradise. Currently, First Responder and Enloe Ambulance share emergency-response duties in the Chico area.

But Parker said “politics” are complicating his plans. Under the state Health and Safety Code, ambulances must be able to connect with a hospital-based medical professional who can advise emergency medical technicians and paramedics on the course of care in the field. In Butte, that would include Enloe Medical Center in Chico, Feather River Hospital in Paradise and Oroville Hospital. “None of the three hospitals wants to be our base station,” Parker said.

Company and public officials were tight-lipped about Priority One, and what its entry into the Butte County market could do to shake up operations here.

NorCal EMS, which covers an 11-county region for the state Emergency Medical Services Authority, would be responsible for assigning Priority One a base station.

John C. Lord, emergency system specialist for NorCal EMS, would not comment on Priority One’s efforts. He did say that if a third company were to be added in Butte, “the net effect would be fewer calls for each provider.”

Lord said his agency does not keep track of response times, and that information could be obtained from the ambulance companies at their discretion.

Byron Parsons, chief executive officer of Chico-based First Responder, refused to comment and also would not release his company’s response times. He said it would be “premature” for the media to report on Priority One’s plans.

Marty Marshall, director of emergency services for Enloe Medical Center, said via a spokesperson that Enloe does not want to be a base station because the hospital has a good relationship with its current providers and the Chico area’s needs are already being met.

Years ago, the two entities moved to a system that divided Chico into zones, with Enloe responding to a particular area on even-numbered dates and vice versa for First Responder.

“Their goal is to respond to 90 percent of calls within eight minutes,” said Chico Fire Department Division Chief Keith Carter, mentioning an oft-cited professional standard. Carter added that he believes the current system works well and response times in Chico are adequate.

Enloe’s Marshall said the hospital’s ambulances exceed that threshold.

Leonard Inch, administrator for Sierra-Sacramento Valley EMS, said in that region, Priority One is permitted to do only non-emergency transports, but not because of any performance concerns. Governments there had two legal options, which Butte could also consider: One is to open ambulance services to competitive bids; the other—which that region decided to do—is to “grandfather” in existing companies and thus block potential competitors from entering the market.

Inch, who coincidentally started the paramedic program in Butte County, said adding competition can trigger “critical mass.” He said, “If you started getting three, four, five, six companies, that can throw a system into a chaotic situation, like in the old days when they used to race each other [to the scene of an emergency].”

Parker, who is in hurricane-stricken Beaumont, Texas under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said when he gets back to Priority One headquarters in Rancho Cucamonga, he’ll contact his attorney to press the matter.

“It’s self-serving for them to keep other companies out,” he said.

“We don’t want to be considered a threat,” Parker added. “We don’t want the public going, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got an inferior system.’ Let us come in there and work the problems. We don’t want anybody running scared.”