Controversy is brewing over ambulance service in Valencia County and how service is dispatched.

“This past Saturday, (May 18), there was only one ambulance available,” said Deputy Fire Marshal Charles Eaton in Tuesday’s county commission meeting.

However, when Living Cross Ambulance was contacted, Michael Ortega, manager of operations, produced three ambulance records from three different units that responded to calls on May 18. Living Cross ambulance numbers 2676, 2677 and 2691 all answered calls on that same Saturday.

Currently, Living Cross operates three ambulances, with one backup, Ortega said.

Commissioner Alicia Aguilar said in an interview Thursday that 18 months ago Living Cross said it would have five running ambulances within six months.

“Here, it’s a year and a half, and we’re still depending on Isleta as a backup,” Aguilar said.

When Superior Ambulance operated in the county, there were six ambulances available between Superior and Living Cross, and the agreement was to rotate calls. Then, in the middle of 2000, Superior Ambulance, based in Albuquerque, opted to pull its operation out of the county.

Fred Shoemate, director of Emergency Medical Services, Region I, pointed out at Tuesday commission meeting that emergency response time is slowed down by poor communication.

“We have tremendous issues regarding communication,” Shoemate said. “There’s the chance now that a call can be transferred three times.”

The communication issue revolves around the county, Belen, Los Lunas and Bosque Farms all dispatching ambulances according to different procedures.

“I don’t feel like it’s hampering Living Cross,” Ortega said. “There is a better way, but we just follow the guidelines.”

Living Cross currently has 22 full-time ambulance crew members with eight backups. Administrator Sam said, even if a client has no insurance, the company is still required to transport them, which on the average, takes 1.5 hours to get the patient to an Albuquerque hospital.

The ambulances have to get to the call, do whatever needs to be done to stabalize the patient, transport and then get to the hospitals, which Michael Ortega said are short-staffed “so they maintain our units there for paperwork.”

And they said that there are many people in Valencia County who can’t afford to pay for ambulance service.

“There’s one person who owes us $27,000 and he cannot pay,” Sam Ortega said, adding that that individual is not all that unusual.

County ambulance service is directed and overseen by the EMS Board. According to Valencia County EMS Ordinance 9905, “The EMS Board shall be responsible for continuing the Emergency Medical Services in Valencia County, as well as directing and overseeing the improvements in delivery of those services.”

EMS Board members are chaired by Belen Fire Chief Wayne Gallegos, now off the job while recovering from a spider bite. Board members include Dr. Philip Froman, county medical director, Fire Marshal John Cherry, David Bris, representing Living Cross, and one representative from each county fire department rescue squad.

“It’s not overnight that this has happened,” said Wayne Galleogs about the ambulance service and lack of a central dispatch office.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” Gallegos said in an interview from his home. “When Superior left, it really took a toll on our services.

“As for communications, everyone has a village,” Gallegos said. “Bosque Farms dispatches an ambulance one way and the county another way.”

“We tried for a central dispatch, but it didn’t happen. Unless that happens, we are going to continue to have those problems. It’s hard because every minute counts in EMS.”

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Bruce Warren