Ambulance response times challenged by former worker, families - WNEM TV 5

Tough Questions

Ambulance response times challenged by former worker, families

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SAGINAW, MI (WNEM) -

It's no secret that seconds count when you or a loved one need an ambulance -- after all, a life can be hanging in the balance.

Tonight a local ambulance company, which recently received national recognition for its emergency response, faces accusations that its numbers don't add up, that the way they calculate those numbers is flawed. It's a WNEM TV5 investigation months in the making.

Dave Shuell worked for Mobile Medical Response for 24 years. He says the Saginaw-based company has a lot of explaining to do when it comes to its emergency response times.

"I can tell you that those numbers are bogus because I know how the numbers are fudged because I fudged them, under direction," said Shuell. "I was not allowed to share response times outside of the washed numbers that I delivered to the public safety committee that I reported to. It was made up of fire chiefs, police chiefs and the 9-1-1 authority."

Shuell now works for an emergency vehicle retro fitter in Muskegon. He was asked to leave MMR in 2010.

Is that his motivation for trashing his former company? He was asked why he reached out to the I-team now. 

"I'd like to see accountability, I'd like to see cooperation and transparency," Shuell said.

MMR agreed to an on-camera interview to answer any and all questions about its response times. The company told the I-team it's following all the rules and providing all the information it's required to. MMR's CEO Mark Thompson says, "our response times are accurate, there are exceptions to the response times and we are in full compliance with the Saginaw County agreement."

MMR has an exclusive agreement to be the only ambulance service in Saginaw County. Shuell makes the argument that the company takes advantage of its status, saying, "the way the county contract is crafted, it gives them a lot of leeway to manipulate the data, and the data is manipulated. Raw data is not available to the fire departments or to 9-1-1."

Here's how an emergency call gets from the person who needs help to the ambulance. After the 9-1-1 operator receives the call, it's forwarded to MMR. That's when the clock starts ticking. If it gets to the emergency within nine minutes, it is in compliance with the county contract. Anything after that is considered a late response.

But what if there is a delay out of MMR's control such as a traffic jam - perhaps severe weather - maybe even a train-crossing delay? That is automatically factored into the "good" category. Critics like Shuell say it pumps up their "on-time" number and he says that's a problem. Shuell says it pumps up the "good" numbers.

MMR says there's a good reason it gets to put those exceptions into the "good" column. Steve Myers says, "because you would believe if the train wasn't blocking the road, that the exception, er, response time, would be met."

MMR took us into its dispatch center. It said it time stamps every call from beginning to end and saves the data illustrating exactly how much time is taken on each call. MMR also says because of privacy laws it can't share most of that information.

MMR response times in Saginaw County aren't the only location in question. The I-team was contacted by several families in Clare County. They say the ambulance company was way too late in responding to emergencies there.

Judy Weber says "right now I'm just praying every day that God will protect the families in Clare County until we can get this fixed." Weber's husband Paul died following a heart attack last November. Weber claims it took 37 minutes for an MMR ambulance to get to her husband. Weber also says she was shocked when the MMR employee asked her a question during that critical time, saying "she just turned and looked at me and said, 'which way is the closest way to the hospital.'"

Another woman told us her brother died following a heart attack. Deresa Schmidt says the Farwell Fire Chief actually performed C-P-R  on her brother Darwin Major for 20 minutes while waiting for the ambulance.  "He even questioned the lapse in time for the ambulance to arrive," said Schmidt.  "He was like, three to four minutes from Clare hospital, and the ambulance that was dispatched out of Saginaw sent the ambulance from Mt. Pleasant which is what, 25 to 30 minutes away?"

MMR counters that its ambulance is not taxpayer-supported and provides a valuable service in Clare County and the rest of Mid-Michigan.

On a related note the I-team talked with some fire chiefs in Saginaw County who tell us they also don't think they are getting accurate response times from MMR. They declined to talk with us about the issue on camera.

Meanwhile, Judy Weber asks that if any other families in Clare County have experienced similar situations with MMR to call her at 989-386-0112.

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