Public ambulance district has to move ambulance posting from Woodlake to Lemon Cove in order to meet response times to Three Rivers
EXETER – Woodlake officials feel betrayed with a recent decision to remove a full-time ambulance from the city.
Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza said Exeter District Ambulance is pulling its ambulance out the Woodlake Fire Station and relocating it back to Lemon Cove. He said residents are worried about the lack of an ambulance in Woodlake, especially after taxpayer money was spent to remodel an auxiliary building at the Woodlake Fire District station.
“They are pulling the rug out from under us,” Mendoza said.
In 2017, Exeter District Ambulance (EDA), funded by a special district in the Exeter area, was posting an ambulance at the Tulare County Fire Station in Lemon Cove. When the county asked the ambulance district to leave, EDA began looking for a new location for its crews to eat and sleep while waiting for emergency calls. In 2018, the public ambulance company began discussing a new post location in Woodlake area and in December of that year EDA singed an agreement with the city of Woodlake and Woodlake Fire District, also a special tax district, to post a 24-hour ambulance in the city in exchange for EMT and paramedic room and board.
“Folks are scared,” Mendoza said, so scared the Woodlake City Council added an item to Monday night’s agenda to notify the public of the change in ambulance service was coming.
EDA board president Adam Pfenning said the ambulance company will still be responding to calls from Woodlake but will be doing so from Lemon Cove. The move was to improve response times to Three Rivers, which the county’s five ambulance providers have been unable to remain in compliance with for the foothill community.
“Since the move to Woodlake, there has been an ongoing issue with response times,” Pfenning said. “We’ve been skating on thin ice and the perfect storm of the pandemic, low call volume and staffing issues didn’t hit until now.”
Pfenning said Woodlake has been phenomenal to work with and EDA would like to maintain its post in the city but they do not have enough rigs to station in both Woodlake and Lemon Cove. Since the pandemic began, EDA has had difficult staffing enough ambulances to cover calls to Exeter and the surrounding area. EDA is the closest ambulance company for Exeter, Woodlake, Farmersville, Three Rivers and Lindsay even though Tulare County uses a countywide dispatch system which automatically routes the closest ambulance to each call. In the last year, EDA has fluctuated between one and three ambulances posting at the same time. The posting is a combination of one or two 24-hour ambulances in Exeter, as well as 24-hour postings in Woodlake or Lindsay or both.
“Woodlake is not going to see a loss in service but they will see a reduction in service,” Pfenning said. “We will still meet our response times to Woodlake, but we are also obligated to meet our times to Three Rivers.”
Mendoza said he did not understand the reasoning behind providing better ambulance for an unincorporated town under 3,000 people versus a city of almost 8,000 people.
“The times may look good on paper but going from 3-5 minutes to 5 or 10 minutes puts our community in a real bind,” Mendoza said.
EDA and the other four ambulance companies in Tulare County are overseen by the Central California Emergency Medical Services Agency (CCEMSA), which also oversees ambulance service in Fresno, Madera and Kings counties.
Dale Dotson, EMS Coordinator for CCEMSA, said the call volume to Three Rivers and Woodlake both average to about two calls per day, sometimes slightly more in Woodlake, meaning there is no coverage advantage to having an ambulance post in Woodlake over Lemon Cove. And while his agency does not tell the county’s ambulance providers where to post ambulances or how to run operations, it does enforce quality control measures such as response times. He said EDA and American Ambulance’s response times to Three Rivers have been inconsistent since moving its post to Woodlake 18 months ago.
“Generally, when Tulare County struggles to meet response times it is in the Three Rivers area,” Dotson said.
Dotson also said Tulare County has given a verbal agreement to allow EDA and American Ambulance rigs to return to posting at the fire station in Lemon Cove. Dotson said CCEMSA is working on the details this week and hopes to begin posting ambulance in Lemon Cove on Dec. 1, 2021.
Response times to Three Rivers are not the only concerns for EDA. District Manager Peter Sodhy announced his retirement at its meeting on Oct. 25 and his last day was on Nov. 5. The board held two special meetings last week to begin recruiting a new district manager and received a report on the district’s fiscal emergency at its Nov. 4 meeting.
While its immediate priority is to find a new district manager, Pfenning said the board is considering other options such as contracting with another provider for ambulance coverage, employee layoffs, obtaining management and financial assistance from the county of Tulare and even consolidating with the Kaweah Delta Health Care District, which could mean the end of the former Exeter Hospital District as a public ambulance provider.
“We went from having a normal board meeting to losing our district manager and a financial crisis,” Pfenning said. “Our immediate goal is to stabilize and then take a deep breath and decide what to do. It’s going to a be a pressure-filled holiday season.”
Under its agreement with Woodlake, EDA also has the option of annexing the city into its special tax district boundaries. This would provide additional tax dollars for the tax-funded ambulance company, allowing it to post 24-hour rigs in both Lemon Cove and Woodlake, something former district manager Sodhy had considered in the past. Woodlake is not currently covered by a hospital district, leaving the door open to make Woodlake a permanent part of the ambulance district’s boundaries.
“Generating enough revenue to support an ambulance in Woodlake would be fantastic,” Dotson said. “I feel for those folks but we have a responsibility to Three Rivers too.”