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Ambulance Co. Tells Verona Council It Shouldn't Get Axed

Criticized for slow response times, Guardian Angel shifts blame to county dispatchers.

After hearing a presentation from Guardian Angel Ambulance staff, Verona Council is in the process of deciding whether or not it will retain the company’s emergency services.

Staff from Guardian Angel Ambulance spoke to council at a meeting Tuesday, addressing that led council to . Council last month, and President Dom Conte said he expects a decision will come within a two- to three-week period.

In the presentation and discussion that followed, staff said their response times average around four minutes. Guardian Angel President John McAfee blamed outlying incidents—such as a sluggish response to an incident this year involving a Verona woman who had fallen from a porch and had a nail lodged in her nostril—on county dispatchers fumbling with priority codes that dictate which incidents ambulances respond to first.

“A lay person’s making that decision,” McAfee said, noting that the dispatchers aren’t medical professionals.

It works like this: County dispatchers take 911 calls, choose one of five emergency codes and alert whichever ambulance company handles an area. The most serious code is reserved for life-threatening situations, while the least serious is described as non-emergency and doesn’t require advanced life-support professionals.

Ambulance companies are required to respond to the more serious calls first. If they don’t have an ambulance that can respond in a reasonable time, they refer the call to another company.

The situation involving the woman who had fallen from her porch was listed as non-emergency, McAffee said, because the caller reported that she heard the woman yell “fire!” before she knew the woman's condition.

After roughly 15 minutes, police officers who responded to the scene called dispatchers to report that the situation was severe and requested another ambulance company. Lower Valley was there in less than 10 minutes, council members said.

McAfee, who expressed distaste for the emergency code system, said any ambulance company would run into the same situations—an argument council member Peggy Suchevich has made from the start of the council debate.

Nonetheless, Guardian Angel has enhanced its services in recent months—including the addition of GPS tracking systems and a staffer dedicated to statistical analysis.

“Lately—the past couple of months—Verona hasn’t been getting the best service they deserve,” McAfee admitted, adding that he’s committed to improving response times.

Currently, Guardian Angel has 15 ambulances, one of which is typically stationed in Verona. Most of the company’s business involves non-emergency transportation for hospital patients, McAfee said, and Verona is the only area it provides emergency response to.

That worried Kier Ewing of Verona’s Chamber of Commerce. Ewing questioned McAfee’s motives after McAfee said he actually loses money from providing emergency response in Verona but keeps it going so that he can train his staff for such situations.

McAfee retracted the statement and reiterated the company’s commitment to efficient service. He attributed some of the service with losing staff after news broke that council was looking into other ambulance providers.

“Losing staff—that’s just competition,” Ewing said. “You aren’t guaranteed anything in business.”

Another topic of discussion was Guardian Angel’s financial state. McAfee said the company still owes the IRS $250,000 resulting from a situation he attributed to bad legal advice on a case involving payments an insurance company withheld.

Council members were familiar with the debt; after the company donated property to them on East Railroad Ave., the borough had a tough time flipping it. When officials put it up for sale, the IRS reinstated a lien on the property.

McAfee apologized for the lien, which he said he was unaware of when he donated the property, and even offered to take it back. He said the back taxes and a number of accidents in which ambulances were hit by other drivers, along with having to replace nearly half the fleet because of engine corrosion, had left him in a financial rut.

At one point, the company fell behind a couple of months on rent for a garage it formerly used in Verona, McAfee said when questioned by Ewing. But he has paid in full and is working to make the company profitable.

“I’m just trying to take care of you guys the best I can,” McAfee said.

While council may vote on whether to stay with the company at its next meeting, Conte said there is no deadline on a decision. Describing himself as “satisfied” with the company’s presentation, Conte said it broadened his perspective of the issue.

“I didn’t know all of the things that are involved in running a business like that,” Conte said.

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Lori Tillman June 28, 2012 at 09:12 PM
I can't believe how many red flags I read in this article. I hope Verona Council sees them as clearly!
Sammie June 29, 2012 at 03:31 AM
Funny how no other ambulance service tries to put blame on county dispatch. Verona's council should be ashamed of themselves for even allowing Guardian Angle to provide service to their town this long. Anyone with a scanner can listen to the dispatch and hear they don't answer on the initial dispatch in an appropriate time; 98% of the time mutual aid is called because Guardian passes it off or they never answer. I have advised all of my family and friends if anything ever happens to me to tell county ask for Lower Valley or drag my body to Oakmont. If Council is smart they would be listening to their police officer's, hell they deal with it every medical call

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