By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
After three years of service by Lifeguard Emergency Medical Services, Dade County announced at a special called meeting on Thursday its intention to award its ambulance coverage contract to Puckett EMS, the same provider that services Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga.
“It was a very hard decision for the committee,” said Alex Case, Dade’s 911 director. “We weighed every option for what was the best interest of the county.”
The committee Case referred to was one especially appointed to make that decision, consisting of himself, Dade County Executive Ted Rumley, Sheriff Patrick Cannon, District 1 County Commissioner Mitchell Smith and Trenton City Commissioner Tommy Lawson.
The committee had considered bids from Lifeguard as well as from the two other providers that threw their names into the hat, Angel EMS and AMR (American Medical Response), before deciding to give Dade’s business to Puckett.
“It was not necessarily the lowest bid but the most advantageous to the county,” said Mitchell Smith.
In 2008, Dade had had to act fast to find emergency coverage when financially troubled Hutcheson Medical Center announced late in the year it was washing its hands of the ambulance business. The contract was awarded to Lifeguard only in December as 2008 ticked to an end and Hutcheson was due to pull out of the county on New Year’s Eve.
As Lifeguard’s three-year contract has drawn closer to expiration, county officials have offered no criticism of its service, at least during public meetings. But that changed last week, when Alex Case told the Sentinel after the Oct. 20 meeting there had in fact been gaps in Lifeguard’s coverage when Dade denizens needed help worst. “Dade County was having to pick up the slack,” he said.
Dade has been paying Lifeguard $100,000 yearly as the county’s subsidy for its service, said Case. The county will now pay Puckett “a little bit more,” he said, for improved coverage.
The specifics of the contract are still in negotiation, he said.
Also asked for comment after the meeting, Ted Rumley agreed there had been concerns with Lifeguard. “We have been using our ambulance a tremendous amount,” he said.
Dade owns an emergency vehicle of its own which is used as backup for the contractual provider when needed.
Rumley said that Lifeguard’s bid for the improved service had been on the high side, and that the county had also been impressed by Puckett’s pay scale and employee benefits. “It’ll be a good place to work,” he said.
Dade County officials present at the meeting urged Puckett to hire the local emergency medical technicians currently staffing Lifeguard, as they are familiar with the county’s roads and population and can, as it were, hit the ground running when the new service takes over at midnight on Dec. 31.
Puckett Vice President Shane Garrison, also interviewed after the meeting, said that is his company’s wish as well but that Lifeguard employees must reapply to work for Puckett and undergo practical and written tests, a physical exam and a criminal background test. “We do that with all our pre-hire candidates,” he said. “We base that on national registry standards.”
But he confirmed that Puckett offers good pay and excellent benefits, including a 100-percent match on 401(k) contributions and 100-percent paid health insurance after five years. “The folks we hire, we want to keep them long-term,” he said.
Garrison said Puckett has headquarters in the Atlanta area as well as in Chattanooga, servicing not only Erlanger but Georgia’s populous Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb. The company owns 33 ambulances and will bring two new ones to Dade.
He was unsure if Puckett would maintain its Dade office in the building used by Lifeguard during its tenure here, which is across Main Street from Citizens Bank and Trust.
Meanwhile, Lifeguard operations manager Jim Webber was not kicking over any garbage cans on the way out. “We love Dade County,” he said after the meeting. The bidding process had been open and fair, he said, and it was not unusual for a community and an EMS provider to part ways in this fashion.
“We are going to work with Puckett EMS to make sure there’s a smooth transmission,” said Webber. “There’s not going to be any loss of service whatsoever. Along with Dade County, we’re going to make sure everyone’s taken care of.”
Webber said Lifeguard had provided service above and beyond what its contract with the county called for. “Certainly there were occasions that multiple calls would happen at the same time and we had to use our mutual aid partners to come assist,” he said.