Mayor: Competing ambulance drivers swerving, flipping each other off

Hugh G. Willett

LOUDON — Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron called for a truce between competing ambulance services Priority Ambulance and Rural Metro at a special called meeting of county commission Thursday morning.
“I have been getting complaints about both ambulance services swerving at each other on the road and flipping each other off,” she said.
Herron told the commission and a group of county emergency responders she’s concerned the rivalry between the two competing ambulance services might put county residents at risk. “I would hate to think that there was one person in here that wouldn’t put the citizens first,” she said.
Rural Metro has a contract with the county to provide ambulance services. Earlier this year Priority Ambulance received a contract to provide services to the city of Loudon and Lenoir City. Rural Metro has filed a suit against Lenoir City alleging breach of contract.

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The key issue is how to handle mutual aid calls, especially on the highest priority calls where a patient’s life is in imminent danger, according to county 911 director Jennifer Estes. “If it’s a priority one, a life-threatening situation, the dispatcher needs to be able to make the call based on which service is closer,” she said.

Responders and dispatchers have been unsure how to handle such calls because each service has contractually defined jurisdictions, Estes said. “It needs to be agreed upon before something happens,” she said.
County attorney Bob Bowman asked representatives of both companies if they thought they could work out an acceptable mutual aid agreement.
Rural Metro chief Jerry Harnish told the commission his service had no problem working out an agreement where the closest available ambulance was dispatched to high priority calls but he said wanted to make sure the dispatchers were not arbitrarily choosing which service to call. “If it’s inability to respond, that’s one thing, but if it’s choosing one over the other, that’s a different thing,” he said.
Dennis Rowe, director of operations for Priority in Loudon and Knox counties, said that if called upon his service would respond with every resource, regardless of the location in the county.

Commissioner David Meers asked Harnish about the number of ambulance units assigned to the county and whether it was true that there have been delays in response to life-threatening situations because of the territorial dispute. “That’s in the rumor mill. I haven’t heard anything like that,” Harnish responded.
Herron asked for both companies to sit down together within the next three weeks to work out an arrangement to provide mutual aid for high-priority calls. Estes asked if an interim agreement could be worked out during the meeting.
Rowe and Harnish agreed to meet next week at the Loudon E-911 building to discuss mutual aid.
County Sheriff Tim Guider asked that from now on, if two ambulance services arrived at the scene at the same time, both use professionalism.
Asked about the incidents of drivers swerving at each other on the road, Priority’s Rowe said he has heard about such incidents, but considered the information to be “hearsay.”
Harnish said he has not heard about any instances of unprofessional conduct by his drivers. It could be that another driver misinterpreted the actions of another driver, he said. Moreover, he said it would not be hard to investigate such claims because the ambulances have cameras recording whenever the vehicle is moving.