Colusa to tackle ambulance shortage with double-duty vehicle

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Don’t be alarmed if you call 9-1-1 and a big red SUV
pulls up to take you to the hospital

The Colusa Fire Department plans to covert its Ford Expedition XLT Command Unit into a Basic Life Support (BLS) ambulance, which the city could have up and running by the end of the year to help out in emergencies, when the county’s only Enloe ambulance is unavailable. 

In a special workshop of the Colusa City Council on Nov. 12, city leaders agreed with Fire Chief Logan Connelly that having a Basic Life Support (BLS) vehicle that responds every time Colusa Fire is called to a scene is the logical next step toward solving a critical ambulance shortage, now and in the future. 

Enloe’s reduction to just one Advance Life Support (ALS) ambulance operating in the county at any given time, which went into effect last Friday, is expected to push wait times for non-life threatening transfers to 45 minutes or longer. Worse case scenario will be that the ambulance in unavailable when a significant emergency occurs, which could put lives in grave danger, officials said. 

Logan said the city had a BLS when the hospital was closed, but that it was not a roll-out vehicle that arrives at each call, effectively making it nonessential. 

“Usually, by the time we got back to the station and all the decisions were made to use it, an (Enloe) ambulance had already arrived,” he said. 

But Connelly said having a unit that is both a BLS and the command unit, which is always in the possession of the duty officer, would assure Colusa citizens that an ambulance and certified emergency medical technicians will respond to each call, whether transport is needed or not. 

When Connelly first pitched the idea to Sierra-Sacramento Valley EMS, he said they asked him why he didn’t just buy an ambulance or accept Enloe’s offer for another box unit.

“I said, I just can’t have the duty officer (on-call) drive the ambulance home and park it in front of his house,” Connelly said. “It’s not practical.” 

Connelly said a converted vehicle that performs both duties would provide Colusa residents with basic ambulance services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and will save taxpayers a lot of money in the long run. 

The plan will require the City Council to approve the addition of one firefighter/EMT to the staff, with those costs being largely offset by the reduction in the overtime the staff currently incurs throughout the year. 

The conversion of the vehicle, which has already begun, costs about $5,000, and the unit will have all the bells, whistles, equipment, and markings of a regular transport ambulance. 

“I don’t want anyone to think that we are just loading people up in the back of an SUV,” said Mayor Greg Ponciano. 

The back of the SUV will have two feet of headspace once the patient’s gurney is loaded. It will have a jump seat (equipped with a seat belt) for the medic, as well as room for another medic, if needed for the patient’s care. 

Connelly said he has already received SSV’s approval and the required transport license. 

While officials said it is not common to see a Ford Expedition or another large SUV serve as an ambulance in this area, double-duty command SUVs are being used is other jurisdictions and in Europe, officials said. SUVs, often dubbed “alternative vehicles,” are also used by search and rescue units in some jurisdictions, and are outfitted and licensed to serve as BLS transports. 

City Manager Jesse Cain said converting the command unit into a Basic Life Support unit is not just a short-term solution but could be a permanent, cost-effective long-term solution to an ambulance shortage.

“The command unit goes to all the calls already,” Cain said. 

The newly outfitted unit, in most situations, will serve only the citizens of Colusa for transport to Colusa Medical Center, or could used to rendezvous with the Enloe ALS ambulance in route, Connelly said. 

Maxwell Fire Department is also looking into the possibility of operating a BLS unit to transport citizens in their jurisdiction, and well as Indian Valley/Bear Valley and Princeton. 

Williams and Arbuckle are not yet keen to the idea, said Colusa County Supervisor Denise Carter, although all are working together to look at long-term solutions. 

Colusa officials said Enloe has provided outstanding service to Colusa County residents for many years, but they expect there will be some disagreement among the local jurisdictions on how to move forward with permanent solutions. 

While some consider a special tax district the likely option, others fear it will lead to the formation of yet another government agency, complete with ambulances, EMTs, a director, supervisors, billing, and office staff earning government wages, benefits, and pensions – on top of the associated office expenses – which would likely cost local taxpayers far more money than local jurisdictions pooling resources to contract with private ambulance providers. ■