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Common Council must make sure city is picking the right ambulance provider

Not so fast. The decision on which ambulance company should serve Buffalo is critical enough that the Common Council should make a mission of evaluating the two candidates before accepting the recommendation of Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Brown says that the current provider, Rural/Metro Medical Services, submitted the better proposal and wants to retain the contract for at least the next five years. It’s certainly possible that Rural/Metro’s offer was better, but the Council needs to satisfy itself that the proposal is superior, while also taking into account the number of complaints about poor service provided by Rural/Metro.

The other company that submitted a proposal, American Medical Response of Colorado, is skeptical. Maybe that’s just sour grapes, as Brown says, but its observations require serious review.

For example, AMR’s chief executive officer, Thomas McEntee, said that while he hasn’t seen the complete proposed contract with Rural/Metro, he doesn’t believe it provides an adequate level of accountability to the city. “It’s not a performance-based contract,” he said. “We would enter into a much more performance-based contract with a higher level of accountability.”

Specifically, McEntee criticized the contract’s penalties for slow response times. They include a $10,000 fine for failing to meet the standards over four consecutive quarters. “That is minuscule,” he said. “That is zero teeth. Every late response should be penalized.”

That’s a criticism that the Common Council is duty-bound to examine. If AMR would live with that standard of performance, why shouldn’t Rural/Metro? What is the standard in other cities of similar size?

The question is especially relevant given past problems with Rural/Metro’s performance here. A Buffalo News examination of the company’s record in 2012 showed that nearly every day there had been a point when an ambulance was not available to respond to a call in Buffalo. Rural/Metro disputed that, but the Common Council needs to look into the matter on its own.

Other requirements of the proposed contract include:

• A minimum of 20 ambulances in the city during peak hours, and 10 in non-peak hours. That represents an increase from the prior agreement.

• Response time of less than nine minutes at least 90 percent of the time on the most serious, life-threatening emergency calls. Response time of less than 15 minutes on the least serious calls.

• An annual franchise fee paid to the city starting at $450,000 in 2015 and gradually increasing to $477,614 in 2019. That represents a 28.5 percent increase from the current contract. Some of those funds would be used to create an oversight panel to monitor contract compliance.

The proposed contract plainly offers some obvious improvements over the previous one. The question, however, remains: Are those improvements sufficient, or should city residents expect more?

Again, AMR, which operates in 41 other states but not in New York, says it would field 30 vehicles in Buffalo, with 25 available for the busiest times. It would meet or beat the contractual response times, McEntee said.

All competitive contracts produce winners and losers, so it’s not surprising that AMR is disappointed. What is essential, though, is for the Common Council to determine whether that disappointment is grounded in provable facts that can make a life-or-death difference to the Buffalonians who elected them.