The long-standing arrangement under which West Side Community Ambulance operates as a sub-contractor to the provider who holds the exclusive emergency medical services (EMS) contract for Merced County as a whole is coming to an end.

Instead, the local ambulance service will contract directly with Merced County EMS to continue as the provider within the Merced County portion of West Side Community Healthcare District.

Jim Clark, Merced County EMS administrator, told the ambulance board at its Nov. 26 meeting that West Side will be carved out from the existing countywide exclusive operating area when a new EMS contract takes effect July 1.

The county has issued a call inviting companies to submit proposals to provide EMS services and expects to announce selection of a provider by late December, Clark said.

The expiring countywide EMS contract is held by Riggs Ambulance (a division of Sierra Medical Services Alliance). West Side currently is a sub-contractor to Riggs but under the next contract will once again be accountable directly to county EMS for its service area of Merced County.

West Side, he said, “will have an obligation to ensure that (the area) is properly served.”

West Side Community Ambulance will also be resuming responsibility for the Santa Nella area, Clark acknowledged.

Ambulance board President Dennis Brazil said Riggs had been providing primary coverage in the Santa Nella area for several years.

That change, Brazil said, means that West Side will have to add at least a 12-hour car to cover Santa Nella. The taxpayer-supported ambulance provider currently staffs two units 24 hours a day. Brazil previously indicated that those resources would not be sufficient to extend coverage to Santa Nella - particularly given response time challenges in the Stanislaus County portion of the district.

As part of that transition, West Side will no longer be part of the Merced County “system status plan” which subjects its ambulances to being posted outside the local healthcare district (which operates the ambulance) to cover areas such as Los Banos.

“This is going to be a positive for us,” said Brazil. Under the current structure, he told Mattos Newspapers, West Side units can frequently get caught up in what he termed a “vortex” as its units returning from a hospital transport are dispatched as the nearest ambulance to a call or required to post out of the district. That scenario, Brazil said, can extend a West Side unit’s time out of district significantly.

“This will keep us out of that for the most part,” he commented.

Under the current system status plan for Merced County, West Side units are subject to being posted out of district but Riggs is also be required to post into the Gustine area when West Side resources are tied up.

Part of West Side’s transition to becoming its own independent operator will involve reaching an agreement with Merced County’s new provider for providing mutual aid as needed.

“As far as the West Side organization goes, it will behoove you to start working as soon as you can with whoever the new contractor will be to develop mutual aid agreements and ways to work across that line,” Clark told the ambulance board.

West Side has a similar agreement in place with Patterson Ambulance currently, Brazil noted.

Clark said a number of other changes are in the works.

He said one goal is to work with Mountain Valley EMS - which is West Side’s oversight agency in the Stanislaus County portion of the district - to standardize guidelines under which EMS providers operate.

He said he is also trying to get West Side units onto a single dispatch services. Currently, the local ambulances are dispatched from two different centers with different radio systems.

Brazil said that West Side was able to provide input earlier this year in conversations with the consultant who prepared the county’s request for proposals from prospective ambulance providers and advocated for the planned changes which Clark outlined.

An overall goal of Merced County’s EMS goal going forward, Clark shared, is to streamline the system with a focus on the central mission of 911 emergency services.

The existing contract, he said, is heavily laden with additional duties imposed on the provider, including responsibility for long-distance transfers between facilities.

As a result, he said, advanced life support (ALS) units have been dispatched to take patients as far as Pasadena and Santa Rosa.

In the upcoming contract, Clark explained, facilities will be able to contract independently with a provider of their choice to meet their transfer needs.

“Our current design puts a lot of extra duties into the contract,” he acknowledged. “We have (now) concentrated on focusing on the 911 system being able to have the resources readily available to respond, especially to life-threatening emergencies.”

Brazil said he believes the new structure will be beneficial in many ways to West Side.

“It is a big change, but I think it is good for the district,” he reflected. “We are really getting back to where the district first started.”