When Valley residents call 911 for the fire department, dispatchers send the closest unit regardless of city boundaries in the name of saving lives.
Strangely, that principle has never applied when dispatching ambulances. Only the closest unit within a city is sent — and that’s not always what’s nearest to the patient.
That’s changing in four East Valley communities, where 750,000 residents will now have the closest ambulance sent to patients regardless of city boundaries.
Mesa, Gilbert, Queen Creek and the Apache Junction Fire District have bundled their ambulance contracts into one package in a first for Arizona ambulance service. Mesa Fire Chief Harry Beck said the merged service area will result in faster response times.
“The lives that will be saved are uncounted,” Beck said.
The deal took three years to broker in part because state regulations didn’t specifically allow multiple cities to combine contracts.
It took the Arizona Department of Health Services more than a year and a half to sign off on the deal with Southwest Ambulance, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said. He said the old approach made sense decades ago when Valley cities were self-contained towns separated by farmland. Smith figures the city boundaries are invisible to most people — and should be invisible to dispatchers as well.
“This shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said. “This should be business as normal but it isn’t.”
The idea hatched about three years ago when Gilbert Fire Chief Collin DeWitt met with Mesa’s Beck to discuss ambulance contracts. Each city’s contract specified different equipment, different response standards and even different definitions for types of calls. DeWitt recalled he and Beck thought there was a better way.
“One call does it all,” he said of how fire units are dispatched. “We ought to be able to do that with ambulances (but) the system wasn’t ready for that kind of forward-thinking, regional approach.”
DeWitt has served as Gilbert’s interim town manager and resumes his role as fire chief on Monday.
The regional service began Aug. 1 and includes 40 new ambulances that Southwest put in service by year’s end. Each costs $155,000 for a total investment of $6.2 million. The vehicles include solar panels that keep a medicine box cool. Southwest CEO Roy Ryals said the panels are among the first of their kind in the nation.
The contract does not cost taxpayers as ambulance service is billed to patients.
Southwest Ambulance had provided service to the areas for two decades. The company will devote 40 ambulances to the four communities, four more than what the combined areas had before.
The four communities worked together in part because their individual contracts with Southwest were expiring at roughly the same time, Mesa City Manager Chris Brady said. The combined service area now makes it easier for other cities to join in the contract or to establish their own contract involving multiple cites, Brady said.
Smith said he wants Mesa and other cities to look at this regional agreement as a model for working together on other services. With years of budget cuts under their belts, cities can’t afford to do business as usual, he said.
“This is our new reality,” Smith said. “We do not have the resources that we used to have. We do not have sufficient resources in our individual cities to provide the higher quality of service. We have to look for new ways across the board to share those resources.”
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