By Reggie Ellis
The Exeter District Ambulance board voted unanimously to leave three full-time EMT positions vacant until the district's financial situation improves at its Jan. 15 meeting.
The decision reduces the district's number of full-time ambulance crews from two to one. The remaining full-time ambulance crew will now be backed up by on-call EMTs paid per-diem. If the ambulance is already responding to a call, another ambulance company -- such as American Ambulance in Visalia or Imperial Ambulance in Lindsay - will take the call.
"Whether people think it is a good decision or a bad one it is one that had to be made," Board President Cliff Bush said. "There isn't a business anywhere that could stand to lose what we lose on a daily basis."
Bush said on average, the district only collects 56 percent of what it bills out. Treasurer Chris Brewer said the district might collect $190 from the state on an $800 bill. Brewer said many of the people who are picked up by the ambulance do not have insurance and cannot be refused a trip to the hospital. The district has lost more than $200,000 for the current fiscal year, which began in July.
The board postponed a decision at its Dec. 17 meeting because of its timing with the upcoming Christmas holiday and to analyze a quarterly amount of money saved by closing the Farmersville station on Nov. 3. Brewer said it will be another several months before the district can get an accurate amount of the money saved by closing the Farmersville station. Brewer said the station was initially opened as a part-time operation that was never meant to be full time. He also said any savings would not have been enough to avoid the layoffs, as salaries are the district's largest expenditure.
"I don't think service level will drop at all," Brewer said. "We wouldn't have done it if there was that fear. We are required under standards to have a certain response time and can't drop below that anyway."
But the decision to lay off three full-time employees was made for the board after three district EMTs resigned earlier in the month due to inevitable layoffs. All three took jobs with American Ambulance in Visalia.
One of those EMTs, Vicki Johnson, said she would still be working for Exeter District Ambulance if they could afford to keep her. Johnson, who was key in setting up the district's CPR program, was the first on the list of layoffs because she had the least amount of seniority.
“I left a job with higher pay and to come to Exeter,” she said. “Exeter used to be the elite. Their employees were the best of the best and they used to take care of their employees.”
Johnson said lost calls have increased since the closure of the Farmersville station. Lost calls are emergency calls that another Ambulance Company must respond to if all of the district's ambulances are out of the station. Without the Farmersville station, Exeter's ambulance responds to its entire district - Exeter, Farmersville, Lemon Cove, Woodlake and occasionally Three Rivers and Sequoia National Park - from the station in Exeter.
“When another company is called the response time is extended,” Johnson said.
Frank Foster, who sits on the board of the Exeter Senior Center, said the decision worries he and many of the senior citizens in Exeter. Foster said he was picked up by the Exeter Ambulance several weeks ago, and while he was on the way to the hospital he heard another call come over the radio.
“What if you were the second person?” Foster said. “What if the extra minute it took them to get to your house was the difference in life and death?”
Foster said he urges senior citizens to write letters to the district expressing their concern on the issue.
“It is likely they will be the next person,” Foster said. “We are all candidates for the next ride and we should be making out feelings known to the district. I think a lot of people in this town don't speak up about things like this. I came from a big city where these things are talked about in public. Here nobody says anything.”
The district said lost calls have increased slightly since the closure of the station. Prior to the closure, there were 10 lost calls in September and 11 in October compared with 14 in November and 18 in December after the closure.
The low number of lost calls also reflects the decrease in overall call volume. That combined with the federal government's plan to reduce Medicare reimbursements, which accounts for 30 percent of district revenues, has crippled the district's ability to sustain revenue. The district estimates it will lose more than $150,000 by July 1.
The decision to not fill the three vacant, full-time positions is the final phase of a cost cutting plan implemented last July. Earlier cuts included laying off one full-time and one part-time employee in October. Another full-time EMT resigned following that layoff. Cuts continued when the district closed the Farmersville station on Nov. 3. The plan is estimated to save the district $150,000 to $160,000 by July 1.