City of Santa Barbara Fire Department Chief Chris Mailes | Credit: Anika Duncan

By a unanimous vote, the county supervisors voted last week to drastically change the way ambulance service providers are selected. For the first time ever, the supervisors — not the director of the county’s emergency services — will be selecting the service provider; also for the first time ever, the county has the latitude to put the emergency medical services (EMS) contract out for non-exclusive bids.

Based on the new “non-exclusivity” ordinance approved by the supervisors, competing providers will be allowed to bid for one of three separate ambulance contracts: one for 9-1-1 calls, another for inter-facility transfers (rides between hospitals or care facilities), and one for critical care rides in which advanced care personnel are required. All three contracts are countywide in scope, meaning the county will not be carved up into geographical subunits. 

“There was a lot of concern about the prospect of ambulance wars,” said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Chris Mailes, a former private ambulance EMT and paramedic in Santa Barbara. “There will be no ambulance wars.” 

Mailes and all the other fire chiefs in the county joined together to wrest the county’s lucrative ambulance contract — held by exclusively by AMR for several decades — and allow the Santa Barbara County Fire Department to compete for the contract. This was the subject of much intense behind-the-scenes political melodrama and off-the-record accusations of bid-rigging. In the end, however, the fire agencies prevailed. 

AMR — a private company — argued it was the only bidder with both the resources and proven track record to do the job; the fire agencies — whose engines typically show up at all 9-1-1 calls anyway — argued they could deliver faster response times at less costs because no profits would be siphoned off for “corporate overlords.” 

Mailes said he expects AMR and the County Fire Department to submit bids for all three contracts. 

Fire departments throughout California are growing increasingly interested in competing for ambulance service contracts. Mailes said it’s too soon to make any generalizations about how they’re working out. 

“There’s an old saying,” he said. “’Once you’ve seen one EMS system, you’ve seen one EMS system.” 

The supervisors will hear the second reading of the non-exclusivity ordinance on June 20. Bids should be awarded sometime this fall, and the new service configuration should be rolled out by March 1, 2024.


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