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Hospital applies for permit to open ambulance service

By Bayne Hughes

For the Enquirer


If Decatur Morgan Hospital’s application is approved, the city will have two ambulance services for the first time in seven years.

The hospital has applied for a certificate of public necessity and convenience that would authorize it to operate ambulances in the city and its police jurisdiction.

David Childers, the owner of First Response Ambulance Service, which has had a monopoly on ambulance service in Decatur since 2014, said he hopes the city will reject what he views as unnecessary competition. The City Council will decide whether to grant the certificate.

“If they approve the hospital’s CPNC, they’re doing a huge disservice to the people,” Childers said.

Decatur Morgan has already begun building up its ambulance fleet and taking 911 calls in anticipation of its application being approved.

Tyler Stinson, the hospital’s director of EMS, said the hospital has purchased seven new ambulances and has several more on the way. Decatur Morgan CEO Kelli Powers last month said the hospital is working toward amassing a fleet of 10-13 ambulances and hiring medical personnel to staff them.

Morgan County 911 Director Jeanie Pharis said dispatchers frequently call the hospital to respond to emergency calls because both First Response and the county’s ambulance service, Lifeguard, are rolling over a high number of calls.

Stinson said Decatur Morgan is already running one ambulance 24 hours a day and two ambulances 12 hours a day. Hospital ambulances ran 138 calls dispatched from 911 between July 1 and Aug. 30, he said.

“We’re running backup to First Response and Lifeguard,” Stinson said. “Sometimes we run one (emergency call) a day, and we run three or four some days.”

City clerk Stephanie Simon said the city received the hospital’s application Aug. 17.

Ambulance Regulatory Board Chairperson Tracy Thornton, who is also the city fire chief, said the application was passed from the legal department to the police department for vetting. When the vetting is complete, Thornton said the application will go to the Ambulance Regulatory Board. The ARB will then vote on whether to recommend it for final approval by the council.

Thornton said he did not know whether the vetting would be complete in time for the next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 14.

Stinson said the date on which the hospital service begins running a full-scale ambulance service depends on the timing of the council’s approval.

“We are preparing for when that occurs,” Stinson said.

Childers said the city’s “public safety will erode with two ambulance services competing” for patients, and his ambulance service “is meeting the city’s (response time) requirements.”

Powers said in August the hospital’s interest in starting an ambulance service was solely due to the inadequacy of First Response.

City officials have argued for years with First Response officials about response times, vehicles and staffing.

Decatur Morgan Hospital is part of the Huntsville Hospital System. Decatur Morgan’s debut in the ambulance business was in February, when Decatur’s City Council voted to allow it to use ambulances on a temporary basis for transports between various entities controlled by the Huntsville Hospital System because the volume of COVID-19 patients was causing backups.

Childers protested the council’s action and has claimed it was an effort by Decatur Morgan Hospital to make inroads on his monopoly. The council has rejected his requests to end the temporary authorization.

Morgan County 911 began early this summer requesting that Decatur Morgan Hospital ambulances respond to emergency calls that neither First Response nor Lifeguard could handle.

First Response received its CPNC in 2012, placing it in competition with another CPNC holder, Decatur Emergency Medical Services Inc. The two competed until DEMSI filed for bankruptcy in 2014.

During this period, Morgan County 911 assigned calls based on which ambulance service was closest to the call by using GPS trackers in the ambulances.

Pharis on Tuesday said most cities use this system because the patient benefits from a quicker response, but it will be up to the City Council how it wants ambulance services selected for calls.

She said one problem arises when the providers have ambulances in the same location or are exactly the same distance from a call. Pharis said the city would then likely choose to alternate these calls between the two companies.