Abrupt Closing Of Iowa Ambulance Service Stuns Community

MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) -- An ambulance service that was the primary emergency responder for several towns in north Iowa abruptly closed its doors Friday, stunning local residents and even its own employees.

Snell's Ambulance Service in Mason City closed its doors after 56 years, blaming an ``increased debt load'' and declining government subsidies.

The company was the primary provider for Worth County and the cities of Northwood, Clear Lake, Meservey, Rockwell, Swaledale and Plymouth, where officials criticized the short notice of closure. They learned of the move on Friday morning.

"I'm surprised and disappointed that nobody got any advance notice about this. It isn't like a bubble-gum factory is closing,'' said Phil Dougherty, chairman of the Cerro Gordo County Board of Supervisors. ``I'm sure this leaves the Mason City Fire Department scrambling.''

Officials said the fire department, which began an ambulance service in June, would be the primary provider in Cerro Gordo and Worth counties until a permanent solution is worked out.

The dozen employees at Snell's who showed up to work on Friday were just as stunned.

"It was heartbreaking _ a slap in the face,'' said Regan Banks, who has worked at the business for 12 years. The business had a total of 25 employees, he said.

"Today was payday,'' he said. ``And some of us weren't paid on our last payday.''

Employee Jerry Kahler, 67, worked there as a mechanic and emergency medical technician for more than 47 years. He was on the scene in 1959 when the wreckage of an airplane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson crashed north of Clear Lake.

"It's been kind of hard,'' Kahler said. "What am I going to do now, and what about my fellow workers?''

Owners Lee and Jean Snell were both out of state and could not be reached for comment.

Officials from cities affected by the closing will meet Monday to discuss the situation.

"A communication plan has been implemented that directs all 911 calls in the areas previously served by Snell's to the Mason City Fire Department,'' said Mason City Fire Chief Bob Platts. ``This plan will be in effect until a long-term plan is finalized by all of the public entities.''

In August 2003, Snell's said it could no longer function without a government subsidy and would close by Sept. 30, 2003, if it did not get financial help.

The Snells told county supervisors that cuts in Medicare reimbursements were crippling their business. They asked that a public referendum be held to provide them with financial help and that the county subsidize the business for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Supervisors took no action, and the fire department started planning an ambulance service of its own and competed with Snell's for the local contract.

A sharply divided citizens committee voted 7-6 to award Snell's the long-term contract, but the Mason City Council broke ranks and approved the fire department as its provider. A handful of towns followed suit, while Snell's maintained some business, too.

Platts said his department is communicating with area hospitals, care centers and ambulance services, and will provide them with necessary services in the short term. The department has six ambulances and 45 certified emergency care providers.

"The Fire Department stands ready to utilize its state-of-the-art equipment and specially trained personnel to meet the needs of the people in North Iowa for emergency and non-emergency pre-hospital care,'' Platts said.