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After rocky start, Waco-area officials praise AMR with contract talks gearing up

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An AMR ambulance makes its way along Waco Drive with its emergency lights on.

After a rocky start in the Waco area, AMR has adapted, improved response times and responded to local needs even while facing daunting challenges of the pandemic, area police and fire officials said as the EMS provider enters the fifth year of its five-year local contract.

Negotiations are getting started for American Medical Response to extend its contract with McLennan County and seven area cities, said Bret Crook, chair of the McLennan County EMS Committee and Woodway’s public safety director. An AMR official said the company plans to stick around long term.

“We have had no complaints to the committee from the cities in the past two years, that I am aware of,” Crook said Friday.

During a two-month span after AMR’s contract started Aug. 1, 2018, first responders logged 54 notations in an EMS committee internal database created to collect complaints or concerns, the Tribune-Herald reported at the time.

AMR provides emergency medical services and transport to Bellmead, Beverly Hills, Hewitt, Lacy Lakeview, Robinson, Waco, Woodway and most unincorporated areas of McLennan County. It took over the job from East Texas Medical Center, which had served the area since 2003. The agreement between the cities and AMR requires response to priority one calls, indicating life-threatening emergencies, in less than nine minutes. It require response to priority two calls, indicating emergencies that are not life-threatening, in less than 13 minutes.

“From Jan. 1 to July 31 this year, our average response time for both Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls combined is under 8 minutes,” AMR area operations manager Heather Schmidt said in statement Friday.

Schmidt said her company plans to remain in the community now and long into the future.

What Schmidt did not say, but Crook did is that hospitals in McLennan County, and across the country, added significant patient admitting protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before COVID, an ambulance could just drop a patient of at a hospital, hand over care and turn for the next call,” Crook said. “Now, they have to follow COVID-19 protocols for admission. Sometimes an ambulance could be there for 15 to 30 minutes.”

Crook said that at the height of the pandemic admission protocols could have taken an hour or two.

“AMR worked on ways to improve response times and meet the minimum requirements,” Crook said. “They added trucks and brought in more (EMTs and paramedics), so that even if one ambulance crew went through a lengthy hospital admissions process for a patient, another truck could take a call.”

Schmidt said that despite the strain the pandemic put on the health care system, her company raised wages for frontline employees and implemented generous signing bonuses in response to a national workforce shortage.

Robinson Police Chief Rich Andreucci said he does not recall any issues or concerns with AMR since he started serving in Robinson in January of last year.

A spokesperson for the Waco Police Department and a spokesperson for the Waco Fire Departments each said their personnel have great working relationships with AMR.

Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary, who has worked as a police officer or city manager for Woodway and more recently Bellmead since 1979, said in an email that AMR has provided top-notch service with the latest equipment and technology.

“The supervisory team in our market is not only supportive but extremely responsive to our needs,” Zakhary wrote.

This company employs a team of skilled professionals, and its patient care is superb, he said.

Schmidt said her colleagues and staff appreciate working with forward-thinking local leaders to help modernize the EMS system.

“For example, AMR deploys paramedics in quick response vehicles to partner with EMTs on ambulances,” she said.

This helps maximize overall capacity, Schmidt said.

“Next, AMR plans to work toward a true tiered response system,” Schmidt said. “Tiered systems help maximize valuable paramedic-level responses and add resources back into the community.”

A rocky start

All of the praise for AMR’s performance during the pandemic comes after a rocky start after its contract took effect Aug 1., 2018.

One of the dozens of early complaints against AMR involved a local police chief driving a pregnant woman who was in labor to an area hospital himself in his police cruiser, after no ambulance responded to her request, the Tribune-Herald reported at the time.

“When problems came across, they worked to improve,” Crook said.

He said the company did not make excuses, but owned the situation and found ways to improve. There are always struggles bringing a new organization on board, he said.

By November of 2018, AMR had increased the number of ambulance crews in service at any given time and had brought response times into compliance the service contract, officials said at the time.

“They have adapted well,” and he is pleased with their progress, Crook said.

Schmidt said her company is proud of the service it has provided.

“We appreciate the relationships we have in Central Texas and look forward to continuing to serve the region for many years to come,” she said.

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Christopher De Los Santos is a U.S. Army veteran with a master’s degree in journalism from The University of Texas. He previously worked at the Williamson County Sun in Georgetown.

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