Turmoil is nothing new for West Side Community Ambulance....but now we’ve gone beyond that to a crisis which threatens the very existence of the taxpayer-supported emergency medical service provider.

While West Side has faced challenges in the past, I don’t believe we have ever seen the confluence of circumstances which now face the community ambulance.

The inability of the ambulance service to fully staff its two ambulances on a consistent basis has led an oversight agency to put West Side on notice that its ticket to operate in Stanislaus County will be pulled unless that situation is quickly remedied.

Can’t really blame the oversight agency.....an ambulance service isn’t really an ambulance service unless you’ve got people to staff the rigs and answer calls. Too often in recent months, West Side has had just one ambulance on duty while a second is out of service due to staffing.

That is unacceptable, and Mountain-Valley EMS has put West Side on notice accordingly.

If Mountain-Valley terminates West Side’s contract to operate in Stanislaus County, we’re told it is all but certain Merced County EMS would follow suit in that portion of the healthcare district.

Unfortunately, there is more.

American Medical Response (AMR), which earlier this year entered into a contract to manage West Side, has served notice that it is unwilling to continue doing so under the current arrangement. The company has issued a letter to West Side giving the ambulance provider until the end of the year to accept a prior AMR proposal that it essentially take over the West Side operation (leaving the board and healthcare district intact to collect tax money, bill for transports and pay AMR a fee for its services).

If West Side declines, AMR has indicated it will invoke its right to terminate the management contract altogether.

As if that is not enough....apparently the seats held by two directors who were appointed to fill board vacancies should have been put up for election on the Nov. 6 ballot. But they weren’t.

So there remains that to sort out as well.

If the staffing issue is not resolved, the others become moot because West Side will be defunct.

The root of the problem, we’re told, is that too frequently crew members will call off on short notice or will simply leave in mid-shift....sometimes because they just don’t care for the crew member with whom they are working.

We were initially told that the monthly schedule is full and that every shift has a crew designated, but there were statements to the contrary at a meeting of crew members Friday evening.

To be fair, I believe that there are many very dedicated, loyal and reliable medics who work at West Side, those who show up for the shifts they have bid on and accepted, work the full shift, perhaps stay on when somebody else doesn’t show for theirs and are willing to come in on short notice if a unit is down due to staffing.

But apparently there are others not so invested in serving our communities and fulfilling their responsibilities.

Absenteeism due to bona fide illness or true emergency is to be expected....as it is in any business. But what I’m hearing from West Side sources is that much of the staffing problem stems from what schools would term unexcused absences.

EMS is serious business and an essential service.....but if that is not recognized by some of the very people who are supposed to provide it, where does that leave things?

Are there problems or deficiencies in the scheduling/hiring process, which is the responsibility of management? If that’s the case, fix it. Now.

There is a very simple solution to the first and foremost dilemma, one which applies to most workplaces.

Show up. Do your job. Or hit the road.

Plenty of finger-pointing has taken place about the state in which West Side finds itself, and not without justification.

The ambulance board ultimately bears responsibility, because that is where the proverbial buck stops. But blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the directors.

I am not fully convinced that West Side has been served as well as we would like by contract management firms employed by the district.

The union’s collective bargaining agreement seems to have hamstrung management’s ability to, well, manage, and I believe has been a key factor in West Side’s struggles.

And the work/attendance habits of at least some of the employees certainly don’t seem to be helping matters, to say the least.

These are challenging economic times for to begin with.....and now we have these issues to deal with as well.

Clearly, much needs to change if West Side Community Ambulance is to continue.

And if it does not, it appears to me that the damage will have largely been self-inflicted.....but the price will be paid by our communities as a whole.

Dean Harris the Managing Editor of the West Side Index and Gustine Press-Standard. He can be reached at dharris@mattosnews.com or by calling (209) 243-8104.