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Firefighters compete for new ambulance contract

Double duty?

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You may be seeing more vehicles like this on the streets. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • You may be seeing more vehicles like this on the streets.

For the first time in the city’s history, the Colorado Springs Fire Department is bidding against private companies for the emergency ambulance contract. The latest bidding war is a do-over process, after the city scrapped proposals submitted last year.

While firefighters respond to all emergency medical calls, along with contracted medics in ambulances, they don’t transport patients to hospitals except in rare circumstances.

The city’s request for proposals (RFP), issued in April with a May 13 deadline, gives the “inhouse option” a leg up by making the CSFD an automatic semi-finalist. The department will compete against the top-ranked private contractor chosen by a city selection panel.

“In this RFP process, we are evaluating two entirely different models,” city spokesperson Jamie Fabos explains via email. “We will select the best option for each model — and then look objectively at the best of each and compare them objectively to determine which model best fits our community.”

Citing procurement rules, Fabos wouldn’t disclose how many bids were submitted and from whom. But the current provider, American Medical Response (AMR) of Greenwood Village, along with past bidder Priority Ambulance of Knoxville, Tennessee, tell the Independent they’re vying for the contract. David Noblitt, the local firefighter union president, confirmed CSFD submitted a proposal.

The department has studied taking over ambulance services at least twice in the last 20 years. Medical calls comprised 63 percent of 68,260 calls in 2017, the most recent data available, while fires comprised 1 percent. 

If the CSFD is chosen, the city presumably would need to pump millions of dollars into start-up costs, such as ambulances and a billing system.

While Mayor John Suthers hasn’t recently spoken publicly about such a change, he’s expressed disdain for using heavy ladder trucks and engines to run medical calls.

Says Fabos, “The Mayor believes it is our city’s duty to examine all avenues in order to determine which proposal offers residents the best quality of care at the most cost effective rate.”

For decades, the city relied on AMR to provide emergency ambulance service through a contract overseen by the El Paso County Emergency Services Agency (ESA). In 2013, then-Mayor Steve Bach pulled the city out of the multi-agency ESA (which included the city and county government, among others) and contracted separately with AMR in a five-year deal. AMR makes its money by charging patients, and it had to pay the city $1.17 million annually to cover costs of equipment, dispatching, contract administration and efforts of firefighters, who are often first on the scene.

Last year, the city’s RFP sought a $1.4 million payment from the contractor. Priority was picked as the preferred provider with which to negotiate, but after AMR protested, the city bagged negotiations and extended AMR’s contract for up to 18 months.

Though the city blamed the interrupted process on a desire to “refine” the scope of work, Priority had received bad press due to its CEO Bryan Gibson’s involvement with failed ambulance ventures.

Amanda Jennings, Priority’s director of marketing and communications, tells the Indy that Gibson previously worked as a turnaround specialist for troubled companies, some of which went out of business. But Priority, which formed five years ago, is on solid ground, she says.

“During the last [RFP] process,” Jennings says, “the city of Colorado Springs’ legal department vetted our credentials and financials and determined that we were qualified.”

She terms Priority “fiscally and operationally sound” and notes, “We remain in compliance with all of our contracts throughout our history.”

AMR declined to comment beyond saying it submitted a proposal.

Jennings downplays competing with firefighters. “We really don’t see ourselves in competition with the fire department,” she says. “We are completing against the other private EMS companies.”

Is it fair to allow CSFD to become a semi-finalist without competing with private companies? That depends on how open the city’s been about the process, says Tammy Rimes, a procurement consultant and author who formerly served as a purchasing agent for the city of San Diego.

“As long as it was outlined and explained upfront to be transparent, then all interested proposers would be aware of the process, evaluation and award procedures,” she tells the Indy via email.

The RFP is clear, stating that an evaluation committee “will compare the top-ranked proposal to an option to insource ambulance services” and then decide whether to keep outsourcing the service or allow firefighters to handle it. If the committee opts for outsourcing, the five-year contract, with five one-year options, will be awarded. Service starts Jan. 3.

Whichever provider is chosen faces a higher bar.

While the response time mandate will remain at 8 minutes in the urban area, which covers most of the city, and the outer suburban area standard will stay at 12 minutes, the city is bumping its mandate from 20 minutes to 16 minutes for the city’s farthest, hardest-to-reach points.

The new RFP also pushes fines to $50 for every minute that ambulance crews are late to calls, compared to the current contract’s $20 per minute.

In a related move, the city posted an RFP May 3 for medical director services, its second in less than a year. The city bagged the last RFP “with the intent to revise and re-issue.”

Dr. Stein Bronsky currently fills the position, which oversees the EMS contractor, monitors medics’ training, and develops treatment protocols and destination guidelines, among other duties.

Currently, Centura Health/Penrose St. Francis Health System pays Bronsky. It’s not certain how the position will be paid in the future. Proposals, due June 12, must cite a “desired annual compensation.” The five-year contract will contain three one-year options to renew.

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To report this story, the Independent reviewed two RFPs, totaling 197 pages, and the 50-page medical services contract, and sought verification from the city of certain information contained in those documents.

Check out these recent stories on firefighters: tinyurl.com/responsestandards, tinyurl.com/firefightersgassed and tinyurl.com/firefighterEMS.

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