Ambulances in Emergency Service District #4 (ESD#4) responded more quickly last month, with the average response time in Devine running 5.85 minutes.
Calls from the surrounding service area were answered in an average of 6.83 minutes.
Previously, response times were averaging over 8½ minutes.
“Response times had been creeping up, so we made some schedule changes and lit a fire under some people,” said Jorge de la Cerda, district manager with Allegiance, ESD#4’s contracted service provider.
“Complacency is one of the biggest battles we face. A couple of people were sent to San Antonio to work on the non-emergency side,” de la Cerda told the EMS#4 board at its Oct. 13 meeting.
Another factor in the improvement may have been a lighter call volume. September’s total of 149 calls was below the more typical range numbering in the 180s.
Board President Beth Leonesio said there have been concerns over “why it was taking so long to get a unit out the door to calls four blocks from here.”
The district had bumped up the accepted average response time from 8 minutes to 9 minutes, allowing crew members additional time to suit up with personal protection equipment (PPE).
While that temporary allowance remains in place, Allegiance stepped up its performance in September. Fifty-two percent of the ambulance runs arrived in 5 minutes or less according to Allegiance reports. Thirty-two percent were answered in 6-9 minutes. The remaining 16 percent took 10 minutes or more to answer, with many over 15 minutes.
The overall average would have been better, de la Cerda claimed, if county dispatchers had issued correct addresses in two incidents. Because of those errors, calls on Sept. 21 and 24 logged responses times of 34 minutes and 24 minutes respectively.
Sheriff Randy Brown owned up to that mistake by a dispatcher this past September in these two isolated incidents.
“Sometimes we do make mistakes, and I’ll be the first one to step up. Our dispatcher did confuse ST Hwy 173 with ST Hwy 132, and we have discussed and addressed that so that it will not happen again,” Sheriff Brown stated.
It was stated that a key factor in previous slow responses has been the absence of up-to-date map books. Delivery of current maps has lagged, and the county’s 911 Communications Office is working to expedite the distribution process.
Referring to another 33 minute response time this past August, officials stated that the ESD “has been seeking updated maps since September 2019.”
However, at the meeting last week De la Cerda said 2019 maps were in Allegiance’s EMS units shortly after they were received last March. It was prior to that, that the company was using vintage 2015 maps.
District coordinator Christy Merendon reported that 2020 updates are expected next March or April.
Allegiance District Chief Patrick Bourcier suggested that map updates could be obtained more quickly through the county’s website – a procedure the 911 office is looking at.
In other matters, EMS#4 commissioners Bill Marshall and Juan Cuellar announced they will be retiring from the board when their terms expire at the end of the year.
Marshall, who had returned to the board after serving previously, said he intends to travel and spend time with his grandchildren.
“They say you’re only as old as you feel, and I’m feeling damn old,” he quipped.
Cuellar, the board’s treasurer, is leaving after 12 years of service.
“The time has come to move on and give someone else an opportunity to serve,” he said.
Leonesio said both men will be missed, and she encouraged local residents interested in emergency service issues to attend the board’s next meeting on Nov. 10.
Among the tasks to be tackled in the coming year will be negotiating a new EMS contract when Allegiance’s contract expires in April.
With $147,155 in the ESD#4 reserve account, Leonesio is also soliciting ways the district can “give back to the community.”
One idea – adding another ambulance unit — is off the table, however.
“We don’t have enough service calls to justify it,” Leonesio told the News. “The cost (which she estimated would double the district’s current $200,000 annual ambulance contract) far exceeds the need.”
On the contrary Medina County Sheriff’s office stated that several times a month there are residents calling for an ambulance that is not available in Devine or Natalia because the 1.5 units we have are often busy on other calls. Allegiance EMS backfills to bring in another ambulance from Moore or San Antonio as fast as they can, but that results in some long wait times for that family who dialed 9-1-1.
“It happens probably a couple times a week, definitely several times a month,” Sheriff Brown stated in an interview Tuesday. “There are plenty of times that our dispatchers get calls for someone needing an ambulance and the EMS in Devine/Natalia is still trying to backfill another unit to the local station. Then once a unit from San Antonio arrives in Devine or Natalia, it is often a crew that doesn’t work this area very often so they don’t know their way around the roads like a crew that is stationed here would.”
“Don’t get me wrong though….The men and women on those ambulances work their butts off, and the boots on the ground do a heck of a job. Our ambulance crews are always busy. It’s the lack of communication that exists between us and the ESD board and EMS service leaders that is frustrating. I think it would be a great thing if we could all come together and talk about this instead of pointing fingers.”
Allegiance representatives declined to provide a price tag for an added service unit, saying such information is proprietary and subject to negotiation.
Back in the 1980s-early 2000’s volunteer EMS crews in Devine remember that their two ambulances were plenty busy and at that time they were answering about 1,400 emergency calls a year.
In 2020 the area’s population has only grown, and Devine/Natalia EMS crews are answering around 2,000 calls a year.
Would you like to serve on the board overseeing EMS service in Devine and Natalia?
Leonesio announced that anyone interested in serving on the board attend the next ESD#4 meeting Nov. 10. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at 206 Dixon Drive, Devine (beside the EMS station near Food King).
In lieu of taking applications at this point, Leonesio said the board will gauge candidates’ interest in person.
“We’re very informal here,” she said. “This will give us an opportunity to meet them and ask questions.”
You do not have to be in the medical profession. These board members are simply meant to oversee our ambulance service and stewards of taxpayer money.
By Kenric Ward and Kayleen Holder