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Members of the California fire service and politicians have joined hands in an effort to pass legislation that would let local fire departments or fire districts control their own destiny on EMS. In March 1998, fire chiefs, firefighters, mayors and state leaders gathered for a press conference in Sacramento's Central Fire Station to announce new legislation designed to allow cities or political subdivisions to determine how EMS should be provided in their communities.
At issue is California's Emergency Medical Service Act of 1980, which directed regional county EMS agencies to be established. A California Supreme Court ruling in May 1997 slammed the door to those cities and fire districts that wanted the decision-making power in their hands on whether a public or private agency would provide EMS transport. Cities or fire districts providing EMS transport prior to 1980 were exempted. Some cities have tried to solve the problem by creating their own EMS systems but the California Supreme Court's ruling said that unless the city had already been operating such a program before 1980, only the county had the authority to create and operate a new program.
It all started when the San Bernadino City Fire Department enacted regulations to govern ambulance transport that involved a private provider within its city. San Bernadino County then sued, claiming the county had sole jurisdiction for regulating EMS and ambulances within the city. Joining the City of San Bernadino were the Apple Valley Fire District, Barstow Fire District and Chino Valley Independent Fire District, as well as others. Later, in a strong show of support, the California Fire Chiefs Association, the Fire Districts Association of California, the California League of Cities and 121 other cities and fire districts filed amicus briefs to support the City of San Bernadino and its fire department. On the other side of the lawsuit were the County of San Bernadino, Courtesy Ambulance (which was eventually bought by AMR), the California EMS Authority and the California Ambulance Association.
In response to the lawsuit filed by the County of San Bernadino, in 1993, a California Superior Court ruling favored the fire service and the position of the cities. The case was then appealed to an appellate court, which also issued a ruling favorable to the fire service and cities in September 1995.
In response to this ruling, several fire departments started up their own EMS transport programs, contending that poor service was being provided in their communities. One such city was Ventura, which said it was dissatisfied with substandard service. In 1994, citizens of Ventura started a petition drive for the Ventura Fire Department to assume transport after long response times. The county had established a standard of 10 minutes for response 90 percent of the time to all emergencies - and permission to exceed 10-minute response times in 15 different circumstances.
At the time, Pruner Health Services, a Medtrans subsidiary, was supposed to commit three ambulances inside the City of Ventura at all times. However, it was not unusual to have two of the three doing routine transfer calls, leaving only one ambulance for a city of more than 100,000 people. Pruner would move other ambulances to cover the void but they often would only move to the fringes, not inside the city, still leaving only one ambulance.
In response to Ventura starting its own ambulance service on June 7, 1996, Pruner filed a lawsuit arguing against the city's decision to take over ambulance service. Pruner asked for a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from proceeding with the plans and asked the court to decide who has the ultimate authority to provide the service. At a June 24, 1996, hearing, a judge denied the injunction and the Ventura Fire Department entered the EMS transport business.