PARKERSBURG - Wood County commissioners and 911 officials said Thursday they were unaware of the city fire department's recent ambulance purchase and were not provided any information about the ambulances or their proposed usage.
"I read about it in the newspaper," said Commissioner Steve Gainer, who is the county commission liaison to the Wood County 911 Advisory board.
Gainer said the matter was not brought before the 911 board.
"We were not aware of it, nothing was said," Commissioner Blair Couch said. "The county is the entity responsible for ambulance service, the county has that responsibility."
By state code, the county commission is required to provide emergency ambulance service. Those services can be provided through designees and have traditionally been provided in Wood County by the two ambulance operations, St. Joseph's Ambulance Services and Camden-Clark Medical Center Ambulance Service.
During Tuesday night's Parkersburg City Council meeting, Mayor Bob Newell said three ambulances were purchased at auction by the city Fire Department. Newell told council the city had purchased three used ambulances, two of which will be used for parts and that the other ambulance will be available for use in the event no other ambulances are available. Less than $12,000 was used to make the purchase, which Newell said he authorized. The funds came from the department's medical supplies line item, fire officials said.
The mayor noted concerns over a lack of available ambulances including a September 2013 incident in Vienna in which a woman suffered a heart attack. No Wood County ambulances were available and an ambulance was dispatched from Wirt County. A Parkersburg fire truck was also sent and transported the woman to the hospital. She later died.
The mayor said the fire service ambulance would not be in the regular rotation or in competition with existing ambulance services. He said no fee would be charged for that ambulance.
Some city council members questioned the procedural handling of the matter.
Contacted Thursday by the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, Wood County 911 Director Rick Woodyard said he was not contacted about the city's ambulance.
He said he is confident the tone-out procedure instituted under the previous 911 Director Randy Lowe following the Vienna incident "enhanced the ability to get ambulances cleared up and responding.
"The policy seems to be working. According to my senior dispatchers, there are some rare occassions when an ambulance is not available and they had to send for one outside Wood County in neighboring counties because of a lack of available ambulances," Woodyard said.
"There are notations on the dispatcher's notes, I don't have the exact number of times, but I will check that, when the tone is set off and they do not get a response. That tone goes out when there is no one else available. It's my understanding there are times on the dispatcher's notations when that happens. It's my understanding they do respond within a few minutes that someone is available. I've not been advised that any ambulance has not answered the tones eventually, that has not been brought to my attention," Woodyard said.
The 911 director confirmed no information had been provided to the 911 advisory board regarding the city's ambulance.
Woodyard said he learned of the purchase through media reports.
"I was not aware and am still not aware of what is going on with regard to those ambulances," Woodyard said.
The procedure implemented last year after the Vienna incident is a special alert tone which is sent out from 911 if a call has been received and no ambulances are available to respond. When the ambulance services hear the tone they know there are no ambulances available.
"And at that time, if they would be able to clear shortly, they would advise us. If not, and we don't hear anything and we get a medical call, we send out a second alert tone and tell them what the call is, and the ambulance service can divert from their current call to handle the medical call," Lowe told officials at the time the new procedure was announced.
The proposed solution was presented to the 911 advisory board, and that board made a recommendation to the county commission to accept the solution and it was approved.
Newell said Thursday he did not contact the commission or 911 center because operation of the ambulance will be strictly the purview of the fire department. If the department is out on a call and another ambulance isn't available in a timely fashion, the city's may be called out.
"Nine-one-one has no authority to dispatch it. It's purely a call that the duty captain will make," Newell said.
That doesn't mean the 911 Center couldn't ask for the city's assistance.
"If they call us and (say), 'The closest ambulance is in Wirt County; can you send yours or would you send yours,' that's certainly the kind of request they can make," Newell said.
The city's vehicle will be a last resort, not an ambulance service, the mayor said. The city will not bill for runs.
The ambulance will not be regularly manned nor dispatched with fire trucks. If another ambulance has been dispatched and will be there in a reasonable amount of time, there's no reason for the city vehicle to be sent, Newell said.
"We just want to be better prepared," he said. "We hope it never gets needed."
Although some City Council members questioned the purchase of the ambulance and plans to use it without their being notified and county officials have raised concerns, Newell said he considers the situation "such a minor issue."
"Who in their right mind wouldn't welcome an extra ambulance?" he said. "When all else fails, you have something."