Tennessee Chief Looks to Reduce Response Time

Updated: 12-12-2006 09:44:29 AM

The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)

A longer wait for an ambulance has Germantown Fire Chief Dennis Wolf thinking again about the city getting in the ambulance business.

The idea isn't a new concept for the chief. He's talked about Germantown having its own ambulance service, like Bartlett does, for years. And every time paramedics are left treating a patient at a scene while waiting for transportation, supplied by private contractor Rural/Metro, it provides more evidence for Wolf's argument.

"From our standpoint, we believe the Germantown Fire Department is best suited to provide total emergency medical care, including transportation, to Germantown residents," Wolf said.

The ambulance question could arise Tuesday as Wolf and the fire department present their strategic plan for the coming year as part of the city's managed competition plan.

"Managed competition teaches us to look beyond the obvious and that's what we are looking to do with this one," Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said of the ambulance service.

Questions have arisen recently because of a pair of lengthy response times. Earlier this month, it took 42 minutes for an ambulance to answer a call to a fallen man on Germantown Road. It was the longest response time to a Germantown call in five years. In October, Frances Elizabeth Anderson McCall, 78, died after a heart attack in Collierville. Although firefighters were on the scene, it took 31 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at Avenue Carriage Crossing, where she was stricken.

The delays have led to calls from relatives for better ambulance service.

The idea of Germantown going into the ambulance business arises every few years. Sometimes it is due to a change in service providers through the county; other times it is based on a change in the service level by the contractor. Lately, it is because of an increase in the number of calls. Sometimes the number of calls exceeds the number of ambulances immediately available.

The discussions for Germantown go back at least 14 years. At times, those ideas have included not only Germantown having its own service or contracting for it, but also having a joint operation with Collierville.

Most of the suburb's residents probably are unaware that while Germantown answers medical calls with paramedics, the suburb doesn't transport patients to hospitals.

That service is provided by Rural/Metro, a private company, under a contract with Shelby County government. Each suburb pays its share of the $1 million contract based on the number of medical calls, accidents and emergencies. The contract calls for six ambulances to serve the unincorporated sections of the county and five of the county's six suburbs. Bartlett has its own ambulance service, started decades ago.

In the past, there were complaints about equipment from Rural/Metro. That led Germantown to study handling ambulance service under the city rather than the county contract.

Wolf says the equipment worries were addressed. Now, it's about response time. Firefighters and paramedics treating people at scenes sometimes become frustrated as they wait on a unit to pick up the patients. Sometimes, a glut of calls can lead to ambulances coming from as far away as Arlington, contributing to waits beyond 30 minutes.

Bartlett does not face those delays because it has three ambulances and three more in reserve, contributing to an average response time of 4 1/2 minutes. Bartlett budgets $1.6 million annually for the service. Wolf figures the initial startup cost in Germantown would be about $2 million, with the annual budget similar to Bartlett's.

Fire officials across the county don't blame Rural/Metro for the lengthening times. It's a product of more calls and the potential for a cluster putting a high demand on the six units in service .

But it does raise a question about whether Germantown residents expect better under the "quality of life" philosophy and reputation for exemplary services. Wolf also likes the idea of having the personnel perform under the standards he sets for the fire department.

"We do really well with compassion, dedication and passion," Wolf said of his fire department. "If we initiate care, we should continue that care until we transfer the patient to a doctor or the hospital. That's the logical way it should be done."

- Clay Bailey: 529-2393


"From our standpoint, we believe the Germantown Fire Department is best suited to provide total emergency medical care, including transportation, to Germantown residents."

Dennis Wolf

Germantown fire chief