Company, city dispute ambulance service fees

February 12, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

Tow trucks idled in front of the Martinsburg Fire Department on Tuesday evening, ready to haul away all of the company's ambulances because of a dispute both sides say centers on how to best serve city residents.

In the end, no ambulances were towed.

The dispute is between City of Martinsburg officials and Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1, a separate entity that provides ambulances, rescue equipment, cell phones, vehicle maintenance and training to city firefighters and paramedics.

Ryneal bills people who use ambulance services - to go to the hospital, for example - and then uses that money to buy the vehicles and other items, said Mary Helmick, president of Ryneal.


City Manager Mark Baldwin said he believes the city, not Ryneal, should be billing and collecting fees for ambulance services.

That money then would go into a separate account to be used only for fire-related expenses, he said.

On Tuesday, a letter was hand-delivered to Helmick demanding that the three four-wheel drive ambulances and one rescue squad truck bought by Ryneal, along with all the money Ryneal has in its account, be turned over to the city.

That prompted Helmick to call in tow truck drivers, who were supposed to haul away the ambulances at 5:30 p.m., she said. The ambulances and squad truck are worth $1 million or more, she said.

Ryneal strives to provide top-notch equipment to the fire department and all of the equipment it provides exceeds state code, Helmick said. If any one of the fire department's members asks for a piece of equipment, he gets it, she said.

In the letter sent to Helmick, city officials wrote: "As part of the city's licensure application, for continuance of EMS service, the city is requesting Ryneal Fire Company No. 1 to sign all titles of the three ambulances and rescue squad over to the City of Martinsburg for continued use by the city's fire department."

The city also asked for the money Ryneal possesses.

Exactly how much money is involved could not be determined.

Ryneal bills $275 for treating a patient with basic life support equipment, while advanced life support costs $450. Last year, the fire department answered around 2,500 medical calls, but people involved in some calls may not have needed treatment, Baldwin said.

Helmick declined to say how much money Ryneal has, and Baldwin said the city has not been able to get Ryneal to open its books for auditors.

As far as the four vehicles that Ryneal threatened to tow, Ryneal holds the titles to them, but the city pays the insurance, they have city license plates on them and are staffed by city-salaried paramedics, Baldwin said.

Tuesday evening, as snow fell, two tow trucks parked in front of the fire department's main station on Raleigh Street, while another two parked at the side of the building.

As the tow trucks idled, their yellow lights flashing, Baldwin arrived. Martinsburg Mayor George Karos, a pharmacist, did not arrive because he was the sole pharmacist on duty at his shop, Baldwin said. Fire Chief Paul Bragg arrived after Baldwin.

While Baldwin met behind closed doors with Bragg, a medic drove an ambulance away to answer an emergency call.

Within minutes, Helmick told the tow truck drivers to leave.

"The City of Martinsburg refuses to let us take our own property," she said. "It's not over, but nothing else is going to be done until my attorney returns to town."

Had the ambulances been towed, Baldwin said ambulances in Berkeley County volunteer fire stations would have been brought in immediately.

Both sides said they hope to work out the matter.

Part of the problem arose when the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services learned that Ryneal was not a city-affiliated entity, Baldwin said. Problems could arise because Ryneal, not the city, holds the license to perform emergency medical services, Baldwin said.

"Our position is, is it really your equipment?" Baldwin said after the tow trucks left and Ryneal members met in a separate room in the fire department.

In that room, which Ryneal uses to meet and also rents out, all the furniture was gone, and empty nails jutted out from the cinderblock walls, marking where pictures used to hang.

All those items were in a rental moving truck parked out back, having been removed by Ryneal members.

Since 1929, Ryneal and the city have had a verbal agreement to work together, Helmick said.

Before the city started offering services by trained paramedics in the 1980s, Ryneal transported patients to the hospital. When the city took over transporting, Ryneal continued collecting donations and, eventually, pre-determined fees, Baldwin said.

Now, because the city has personnel, insurance, a budget and other criteria - but not ambulances - it cannot be certified by the state Office of Emergency Medical Services. Likewise, Ryneal cannot be certified because it has ambulances but not personnel, insurance or other criteria, Baldwin said.

The state office gave Martinsburg 60 days to correct the problem, Baldwin said.

Baldwin said the city could make a case that it owns the ambulances because they were paid for by services performed by city employees.

Asked to respond to Baldwin's assertion that the equipment belongs to the city, Helmick referred the question to her attorney, Michael L. Scales. Scales was out of town.

Ryneal, which is in the process of becoming a nonprofit corporation, has about 50 members, Helmick said.

Although Martinsburg Police Chief Ted Anderson, in plainclothes, and a uniformed officer arrived at the fire department, criminal charges against Ryneal would not have been pressed, Baldwin said, because the ambulances and rescue squad truck are legally titled to Ryneal.

Keeping in mind what is best for city residents is important, both Baldwin and Helmick said.

"Ryneal is very concerned about the citizens of Martinsburg, and that's why we're fighting," Helmick said. "Our last resort was to pull those ambulances."

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