PARKERSBURG - The goal of an ambulance the city plans to outfit is not to take business from existing services, but to provide assistance when they cannot, Fire Chief Eric Taylor said Friday.
"It is certainly not our intent to compete with private business, but there will always be occasions when their resources are not able to meet the demand," he said in an email.
One of those occasions was in September, when Parkersburg firefighters responded to a mutual aid request in the northern part of Vienna where a woman had suffered a heart attack. With the closest ambulance available coming from 45 minutes away, the woman was taken by fire truck to the hospital, where she later died.
This ambulance, stored at the Camden Avenue fire station, was purchased at auction by the Parkersburg Fire Department for use in situations when other ambulances are not available. (Photo by Jeff Baughan)
"It could have just as easily been in Parkersburg," Taylor said. "That could have been one of our family members waiting (for an ambulance) to come from Wirt County."
The Parkersburg Fire Department has been a medical first responder for more than 10 years, Taylor said. They respond to all traffic accidents within the city and go on medical calls when an ambulance is unavailable.
"I know of several occasions when we've had 60 percent of our fire engines on medicals, waiting for an ambulance to transport," Taylor said. "It's not every day, but it does happen. When that does occur, having our own ambulance available will give us one more resource to get those fire trucks back in service."
Larry Stephens, director of ambulance services for Camden Clark Medical Center, said he's not against the city outfitting its own ambulance, but has questions about the process.
"Certainly, we would welcome any help when we have a shortage of ambulances," he said. "Doesn't happen very often, but once is too much, especially when it's your loved one."
Calls to the privately owned St. Joseph's Ambulance Services were not returned.
Stephens said Camden Clark has four ambulances in service during the day, three based on Murdoch Avenue across from the Memorial Campus and one in either Vienna or south Parkersburg. The service does its best to provide enough coverage without having too many people on duty with nothing to do, he said.
Conversely, "there are times where if you had 10 ambulances staffed, you'd use them all for emergency calls," Stephens said.
If the city does not bill for its runs, people might just request the fire department ambulance instead of one from Camden Clark or St. Joseph's, he said.
Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said the city won't charge for any ambulance runs it makes, but no one will be able to specifically request that vehicle. The ambulance will not be dispatched by 911, but summoned to a call the fire department is already on if deemed necessary.
"When all else fails - and we are the ones on the call - our firefighters (and) EMTs will make the call," Newell said.
The mayor said nothing would prohibit 911 from requesting assistance from the city ambulance if others were unavailable.
Stephens also questioned the expense of outfitting the ambulance.
The city purchased three ambulances this spring at an auction in Columbus for less than $12,000. One will be run while the others will provide spare parts, Newell said.
Taylor estimated it will cost $6,000 to $8,000 to equip the ambulance. St. Joseph's Ambulance is providing a cot, and the department has ordered an automatic external defibrilator. A large oxygen cylinder will have to be rented, probably costing $20 to $25 a month.
"Almost all of the other equipment we already have," Taylor said.
The chief said he expects the ambulance to be licensed as an advanced life support vehicle. However, it will only be able to operate that way when the department's paramedics are aboard. If only emergency medical technicians are available, it will serve as a basic life support vehicle.
Taylor noted that from the 1970s to the mid-90s, a backup ambulance was operated by Wood County Emergency Services. In Washington County, Marietta and Belpre's fire departments run ambulances.
"We're not reinventing the wheel; it is simply a logical solution," Taylor said.
Stephens said the 911 Center now issues a special tone when there is only one ambulance available and another when there are none. That helps make sure an incident like the one in September doesn't happen again.
And while the closure of LIFE Ambulance in December has resulted in more medical transports for the remaining ambulance services, Stephens expects Camden Clark vehicles to be freed up more after the closure of the Camden Clark St. Joseph's Campus' Emergency Department and inpatient services.
"We were doing a lot of campus-to-campus transports up until Tuesday," he said.