Rural Metro addressed the Loudon County Commission earlier this week, disagreeing with allegations made in a 60-day notice of default delivered in August.
Rural Metro Community Relations Director Tom Milton on Monday presented the commission with a letter that addressed the allegations specifically.
“Rural Metro understands that the County may have concerns resulting from isolated events, and although we agree that these incidents have to be addressed, they do not constitute default,” the letter said.
The letter also took exception with the allegation that Rural Metro is not meeting industry standards. The company is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services, Milton said.
At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Dave Meers questioned Milton about delays in the installation of GPS equipment. Milton said the GPS is being set up and should be working by November.
Among the recommendations in the letter, Rural Metro asked for regular meetings with the commission to discuss any issues that might arise. Rural Metro has served Loudon County well for more than a decade without major complaints, Milton said in an earlier interview. The problems began shortly after rival Priority Ambulance entered the market this year, he said.
Priority has an agreement to provide services to the city of Loudon and Lenoir City; areas that were previously assigned to Rural Metro under a county wide contract that through December 2015.
Population in Loudon County is concentrated in the two largest cities, Loudon and Lenoir City, he said. Most calls in the county come from these areas.
The mutual aid agreement, which allows the E-911 dispatchers to select the closest ambulance to the incident, results more often than not in the assignment of Priority, according to Rural Metro’s management. “It’s a formula to undercut the contract,” Milton said.
Call volume for Rural Metro ambulance service in Loudon County has dropped off considerably since an informal mutual aid agreement was reached with rival Priority Ambulance a few months ago, Milton said in an earlier interview. “On days when we would get 30 to 40 calls we are now getting five calls,” he said.
Milton said Rural Metro is prepared to compete against any other ambulance service during the contract bidding process, but he believes that once an exclusive contract has been signed, the competition should end. “Right now it’s whoever gets there first gets the call,” he said.
He said the current situation makes him wonder “whether the contract means anything.”
That the situation between the county and Rural Metro should get to such a point surprises Milton. He said that the company usually works out complaints with its customers through private discussions, not news conferences.
Priority is serious about expanding its footprint in Tennessee, said Rob Webb, Priority’s vice president of operations. Should Priority be asked to fill a larger role in Loudon or surrounding counties, the company has adequate resources for expansion, Webb said.
Priority has paid bonuses to recruit new employees, including those from Rural Metro. Using bonuses to recruit from competitors is a standard practice in the industry, he said.
Jerry Harnish, Rural Metro’s Tennessee regional director, has suggested that the Priority bonus program could create a conflict of interest because some of the Loudon E-911 dispatchers also work for Priority.
Loudon County E-911 Director Jennifer Estes said that she and several dispatchers work part time for Priority to keep their EMT certifications valid.
She said she has not been paid any bonus to sign on with Priority. Some Loudon E-911 dispatchers also work for Rural Metro, she said.
County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw said he has been meeting with Rural Metro to discuss some of the problems. Any further action on the contract will be based on the decision of the commission, he said. “They’re going to do what’s best for the citizens of Loudon County,” Bradshaw said.