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Ambulance proposal fuels fire

There is a quiet challenge brewing to unseat Lake Tahoe Ambulance, Inc., as the sole service provider for the South Lake Tahoe area.

Lake Tahoe Ambulance, which is a private service provider, has held the Service Area 3 contract since 1975.

Service Area 3 includes the area of El Dorado County from Stateline to Camp Sacramento, near Echo Summit.



The current six-year contract expired in January, but the contract was extended while the El Dorado County Counsel studies and discusses a new Emergency Medical Services plan, then presents it to the State of California for approval. The County Board of Supervisors then has final say as to whether a new contract will be offered.

Even though Lake Tahoe Ambulance has held the Service Area 3 contract for more than two decades, changes could be in the works. Two area fire departments have expressed interest in forming a joint powers agreement, in which the different departments would work in concert to provide service to Area 3. This would be a departure from the current setup, where Lake Tahoe Ambulance is the primary provider, and the fire departments just fill in when needed.



The two fire departments, Lake Valley Fire Protection District and the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, approached El Dorado County with their joint powers proposal in August. But the county sent it back in December, putting the proposal on hold while it hammers out its Emergency Medical Services Plan and looks at some legal issues.

But why did the two fire departments step forward in the first place?

“Basically we feel we would better meet the needs of the community,” said Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief John Ceko.

Lake Valley, which operates from bases in Meyers and Montgomery Estates, is currently a “back-fill provider” for South Lake Tahoe – in other words, a first-responder when Lake Tahoe Ambulance does not have enough units to respond to an emergency.

As a fire department unit, Lake Valley responds to many sorts of emergencies, and its paramedics are trained to deal with many different emergency scenarios.

That is one of the reasons, Ceko claims, that a fire department would be better equipped to be the area’s primary ambulance service provider.

“There is a high turnover ratio (at Lake Tahoe Ambulance), because of poor pay and benefits,” Ceko said. “As a consequence they have to continually be training new people. That doesn’t happen nearly as much with a fire department.

“Look, I don’t necessarily want to be in the ambulance business. However, my intention is to provide the best service for my constituents.”

Lake Tahoe Ambulance Chief Executive Officer Chuck Staub referred all questions about the company to the El Dorado County Medical Services Agency, which oversees the operation.

“I can say that we are not unhappy with the service Lake Tahoe Ambulance has been providing,” said County Medical Services Agency Deputy Director Randy Schrader.

“However, there has been a residual feeling in the community, which originated before my time here, that (Lake Tahoe Ambulance) has been less than cooperative with other agencies.

“But there has been an improvement in that regard over the past few years,” he said. “Their equipment is better, their response time is better, and their staff training is improving.”

In most other areas of El Dorado County, ambulance service is provided by fire departments. Such is the case in Placerville, and also on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, in the communities of Tahoma, Meeks Bay and Homewood (served by the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District). On the Nevada side, the Douglas County Fire Protection District provides the primary ambulance service.

All of these service providers – including Lake Valley and the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department – are part of a cooperative network, in which one or more departments will help out when the primary provider cannot handle the load.

“But for a long time now, we’ve felt a spirit of non-cooperativeness from Lake Tahoe Ambulance,” Ceko said. “We feel they have an outreach problem.”

Susy Walker, the Base Hospital Coordinator at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Shore, deals with all of the ambulance providers on a regular basis. Lake Tahoe Ambulance went out on a more than 1,200 calls last year, and Lake Valley responded to about 630. Most of these trips ended up at Barton.

“It’s a very touchy subject,” Walker said of the ambulance contract debate. “As far as how we relate to them here, all of the paramedics are held to the same standards. There are other issues, though, that we don’t see here.”

Some of those other issues may include a paramedic’s performance at an accident scene. Some, such as Ceko, claim that a private provider cannot train its paramedics sufficiently to deal with all field emergencies, such as extricating people from cars.

Also, Ceko claims, Lake Tahoe Ambulance is sometimes late to calls because their drivers get lost.

“That is due to the fact that they often have new drivers,” he said. “It’s a political thing. They’ve had this contract for so long, they’ll probably get it again because it’s tradition.”

Heavenly Ski Resort Risk Manager Jimmy Lawrence said that he has no complaints about Lake Tahoe Ambulance.

“We’ve been very happy with their service,” said Lawrence, who has been at Heavenly for 27 years – 15 as a member of the ski patrol. “Anyone who has lived in this community as long as I have has seen (Lake Tahoe Ambulance) go through ups and downs, as far as criticism in the community,” he said. “But they’ve done a good job here.”

El Dorado County Fifth District Supervisor Dave Solaro said that the issue is getting close scrutiny at the county government level. The Board of Supervisors has final say on what shape ambulance service in South Lake Tahoe will eventually take.

“Currently we’re waiting for the Emergency Medical Services Plan to be accepted by the State of California,” Solaro said. “Once that happens, the plan can be presented to the board for approval. So at this point it’s still up in the air.”

“From our standpoint, the city of South Lake Tahoe probably couldn’t afford to run an ambulance service on its own,” said South Lake Tahoe Police/Fire Chief Brad Bennett. “So a joint powers agreement would probably be a good idea.

“But this process all began before I came on (three months ago),” he said. “I’m not really that familiar with the history. I’m quickly being brought up to speed, though.”


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