W.Va. firefighters slam ambulances leased by city

March 26, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

If, as firefighters say, the Martinsburg Fire Department's current ambulances are "elite" and "state-of-the-art," how would they characterize the three ambulances the city is leasing to replace them?

Three firefighters answer in unison: "Junk."

The city is leasing the used, 1994 ambulances in order to acquire a state license to perform emergency medical services. Martinsburg City Manager Mark Baldwin said the use of the leased ambulances will be temporary.

Although firefighters expressed reservations about the condition of the used ambulances, they agreed to speak for this story only if their names were not printed, saying they feared retaliation from city officials.


A city order prevents firefighters from speaking to the media on "city-related matters," according to a copy of a memo written on city letterhead.

Baldwin, however, said no such order exists.

The EMS license in question is held by Ryneal Fire Co. No. 1, a private, non-city corporation. Ryneal bills and collects fees from people who are taken to the hospital by ambulance, then uses that money to buy equipment for the fire department.

The relationship between Ryneal and the city has been in place for more than 70 years. In February, the city demanded that Ryneal turn over all of its rescue and fire equipment.

High mileage

Over the last few years, Ryneal has purchased three ambulances for the fire department. One is a 1996 model with 45,000 miles on it. Of the other two, which are both 2002 models, one has 9,000 miles on it, and the other has 10,000 miles, firefighters said. All have four-wheel drive.

Of the leased ambulances, one has 124,000 miles on it, the second has 164,000 miles and the third has 183,000, firefighters said. None has four-wheel drive.

On one of the vehicles, firefighters pointed out painted-over rust, loose molding and seat belts that appear to have been chewed. Storage space is limited, and paramedics worry they will not be able to haul all the equipment they currently can.

Ryneal's ambulances have mechanical arms to lift and lower, from an exterior compartment, 100-pound oxygen tanks, firefighters said. On the leased models, the tank is stored inside and must be manually lifted up and out.

Baldwin said Ryneal's ambulances "are probably the Cadillac version of ambulances," but he said he is confident the leased ones can perform just as well.

Under the lease agreement, the city will pay $500 per week per ambulance for the first four weeks, and $475 per week per ambulance after that. The lease is for 26 weeks, meaning each ambulance will cost $12,540.

Each of Ryneal's ambulances cost more than $100,000, firefighters said.

Equipment for the leased ambulances cost another $44,300, and attorney's fees - incurred because the city is taking Ryneal to court to try to get the ambulances - another $20,000.

Before they were brought to Martinsburg, the leased ambulances were used by Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, and most likely were designed for short trips from one facility to another, a firefighter said.

Short-term lease

If, as a result of the lawsuit, a judge turns Ryneal's ambulances over to the city, Martinsburg officials will keep those and get rid of the leased ones, Baldwin said.

If a judge decides that Ryneal can keep its ambulances, the city will get rid of the leased vehicles and solicit bids for new ones, Baldwin said. The case is scheduled to be heard in June.

"We're not going to go backward, so to speak," Baldwin said.

One firefighter called that good news. But the firefighters said they wondered why - if the leased ambulances will not be used for long - the city paid around $1,500 to have them detailed and lettered. "Martinsburg Fire Department" is written in block letters on the side of each.

Several firefighters said they believe they could work out an agreement between Ryneal and the city, but have been told to stay out of the issue.

Ryneal started billing for and collecting ambulance fees in 1985. Problems arose, according to Baldwin, when officials with the state Office of Emergency Medical Services learned that Ryneal was not a city entity.

The city has personnel, insurance, a budget and other criteria, but no ambulances. Because of that lack, it cannot be certified by the state Office of Emergency Medical services. The leased ambulances should take care of that requirement, and gain the city the needed certification, Baldwin said.

Once the ambulances are inspected and the city is certified, paramedics will start answering emergency calls using the leased ambulances, Baldwin said.

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