PRESCOTT, AZ — In a medical emergency, how long is too long to wait for an ambulance?
10 minutes? 20? 45? What about an hour?
For the nearly 200,000 people who live in and near Prescott, Fire Chief Scott Freitag said response times from a for-profit ambulance company are too slow.
In some cases, there are no ambulances available at all — known as “Level Zero” — leading firefighters and residents to transport critical patients in personal vehicles or unapproved fire vehicles, records show.
“This is a public health issue in all honesty,” said Freitag, who heads the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA).
CAFMA’s jurisdiction covers much of the area surrounding the City of Prescott.
Last week, CAFMA’s board approved a plan to allow Freitag’s department to apply for a Certificate of Necessity — essentially a license to operate ambulances in the area.
Right now, the only ambulance provider allowed by Arizona’s health department to operate in Prescott and the surrounding area is Life Line Ambulance, a for-profit company underneath a larger corporation called American Medical Response (AMR).
In a statement sent to ABC15, AMR disputed Freitag’s claims and said the chief is purposely misleading people in order to obtain a Certificate of Necessity.
Another private ambulance company, Priority Ambulance, is also applying to provide service in the area.
Freitag said his goal is to get the health department to allow both private companies and fire departments to be able to provide ambulance service in the area.
“We are not trying to push AMR out,” he said. “We do want Priority up here because we do think another private company would be helpful.”
Freitag spoke to ABC15 in a sit-down interview last week.
Below are a pair of transcribed excerpts from the interview with the chief describing the current situation in the area.
ABC15: What’s the problem here? Is it that we have a private ambulance company that you feel is responding too slowly and in some cases not at all?
Freitag: Exactly. We have an issue with ambulance transport response times. Part of that today is a result of not enough ambulances in the area. We’re seeing responses times in some cases 30 minutes up to an hour or more.
ABC15: Are we talking about 30 minutes in the woods on a mountain or are we talking about a neighborhood?
Freitag: We’re talking about at Starbucks on Glassford Hill Road right in the middle of Prescott Valley in a densely populated suburban area.
ABC15: So you could be in the middle of a place where tens of thousands of people live and you’re still going to look at 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or an hour?
Freitag: That’s correct.
ABC15: Does that happen once a year, or?
Freitag: No that happens several times a day.
ABC15 reviewed dispatch logs and radio traffic that show ambulance response times have reached an hour or more.
On some days, records also show incoming emergency calls outnumber available Life Line ambulances.
Freitag: Since July 2 through today, we have been at Level Zero 400 times. Level zero is no ambulances available for transport.
ABC15: For how big of an area?
Freitag: 420 square miles at least. That is the City of Prescott and the jurisdiction that our agency CAFMA covers which is 156,000 residents.
ABC15: So for 156,000 people there are situations where are there no ambulances left?
Freitag: That’s correct.
ABC15: What does that mean then? What happens when someone calls in and you’re at level zero?
Freitag: What happens in the past is that a critical patient may be transported in the back of their personal vehicle and treated by paramedics in the backseat. Some have opted to take an Uber or a Lyft or a Taxi to the hospital because they couldn’t get a transport. So this is becoming a daily occurrence that this is happening.
A copy of the Life Line / AMR’s Certificate of Necessity can be found on the state’s website. The response time standards were updated for the first time in decades this summer.
A spokesperson for Life Line / AMR sent ABC15 the following statement:
“American Medical Response (AMR) respectfully disagrees with the many misleading statements CAFMA is making to support their position to apply for a Certificate of Necessity. AMR / Life Line takes its responsibility to the community seriously and has remained in compliance with ADHS, our regulatory agency. We welcome the opportunity to provide an interview to discuss the facts and the many inaccuracies being cast by the local Fire Chief.”
As back-ups, CAFMA often brings their own ambulances, which they actually call “rescues” because they aren’t officially allowed by the state to have them.
Freitag tracks the number of patients he transports every week and sends regular reports to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees ambulance providers.
Based on complaints from Life Line / AMR, the health department is currently investigating CAFMA for their unapproved ambulance transports, records show.
Some of the recent calls for which CAFMA is under investigation include an 8-month-old infant in cardiac arrest, a trauma patient in a car crash, and someone who was shot.
“We stand to gain nothing,” Freitag said. “As a matter of fact, as a way we are running these rescues, it is costing us significant dollars to provide this care and it’s providing a strain on our firefighters. And even if we get a CON to operate, it’s to supplement the system to work in a public / private partnership. As a public entity, we are not looking to turn a profit. We are looking to break even. I don’t see it as a match between [us and AMR]. That’s the way some people want to frame it, but the reality is people’s lives are in danger. And it’s our job as the fire department to do something about that.”
ABC15 is currently scheduled to interview a regional director with Life Line / AMR next week. Journalists are currently requesting and reviewing 911 calls, radio traffic, data, and other records related to this issue.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.