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City gets support from county on ambulance battle

February 14, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Berkeley County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to make their support known for the City of Martinsburg, which is seeking to gain a state license to perform emergency medical services.

That license currently is held by Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1, a noncity entity. Ryneal bills and collects for ambulance services and then uses that money to buy and maintain ambulances for the city. Ryneal also pays for equipment, cell phones and training for city paramedics and firefighters.

Commissioners Howard Strauss, Steven Teufel and John Wright voted 3-0 to designate the City of Martinsburg - not Ryneal - as the emergency medical provider for city residents.

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They voted after City Manager Mark Baldwin spoke.

The debate between Ryneal and the city stems from licensing regulations mandated by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services. Two messages left at that Charleston, W.Va., office Thursday were not returned.

City officials and Ryneal disagree on how licensing works.

Baldwin said the city cannot be licensed to perform EMS because it does not hold the titles to ambulances and a squad rescue truck being housed and used by the Martinsburg Fire Department. Those vehicles are titled to Ryneal.

Mary Helmick, president of Ryneal, said her organization can continue to hold the EMS license as long as Ryneal and the city have a written agreement to work together. They now have an oral agreement.

Baldwin said he does not know whether that is a possibility under state code, but either way it's irrelevant because the City Council voted that the city alone should hold the EMS license.

Earlier this week, the city sent a letter demanding that the three ambulances, squad truck and all money in Ryneal's account be turned over to the city.

In response, Helmick called tow trucks and planned to haul away all the ambulances Ryneal provides to the Martinsburg Fire Department.

No ambulances were towed, though, and Ryneal's attorney is supposed to meet with city officials. Michael Scales, Ryneal's attorney, was out of town, but expected to return Monday, according to an employee in his office.

Helmick said she wants to continue ensuring that city medics and firefighters have top-notch equipment. Everything Ryneal has provided exceeds state code, she said.

Baldwin said the city can continue that mission.

Every dime collected through ambulance fees will go into a special fund and be used only for fire department expenditures. Those expenditures will be accounted for in open books that anyone can review, Baldwin said.

"We're going to provide the most modern, updated equipment needed," Baldwin said.

The debate boils down to who owns the ambulances in question, both sides agree. Owning ambulances is a requirement for receiving an EMS license.

Although Ryneal holds the titles to the vehicles, Baldwin said the city could make a case that it actually owns them because they were paid for by services provided by city-salaried medics.

People taken to the hospital by a city ambulance pay $275 if they require basic life support services, or $450 if they need advanced life support services, plus $8.50 per mile traveled. Last year, the fire department answered around 2,500 medical calls.

Ryneal bills for and collects those fees and uses that money to buy the fire department equipment.

The city wants to take over billing and collecting, Baldwin said.

If Ryneal will not turn over the ambulances, the city may have to lease ambulances to secure an EMS license, Baldwin said. He said he hopes something can be worked out with Ryneal so that is not necessary.

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

At the county commissioners' meeting, nobody from Ryneal spoke. Helmick said she was not aware the topic was on the agenda to be discussed.

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