The county-contracted American Medical Response (AMR) ambulance service receives thousands of calls a week in Blount, but in January troubled software forced the company to create one of its own.
AMR, which has 16 licensed ambulances and more than 100 part and full-time employees serving Blount, recently decided to make a major software shift by migrating its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to integrate with the system used by Blount EMS.
The software change went into effect Jan. 28, and officials say the integration has been going well so far.
When it entered into a contract with the county in 2015, AMR used its own CAD system to take and respond to emergency calls.
Now the company is scrapping that system to fix many technical problems.
The price tag is $ 150,000, AMR Regional Director Josh Spencer said by phone last week.
Since AMR pays for its calling software, that money isn’t technically out of Blount’s pocket.
But the Emergency Medical Services board in a December 29, 2020 meeting debated and approved the waiving of nearly $ 287,000 in AMR fines incurred from March to December 2020 due to slow response times.
It also pledged to abolish fines through March 2021, putting the extension of forgiveness to a full year.
Board members tried to reverse this decision in another meeting on February 3, saying they should have had more information before making the decision. They couldn’t get the votes to lift the waivers, and now the year’s forgiveness stands.
AMR’s contract with Blount County requires the company to pay fines if ambulances are unable to call within 10 minutes 90% of the time per month. Blount also fines the company in individual cases when ambulances fail to show up within 15 minutes.
From March to December 2020, crews arrived in more than 10 minutes for 88.35% of calls.
Therefore, EMS board members wanted to know how AMR would spend the money saved through waived fines.
Blount commissioners and EMS board members Tom Stinnett and Ron French specifically asked Spencer and local AMR Operations Manager Jonathan Rodgers at the December and February meetings, asking if the money saved would be used to improve ambulance services in Blount .
The thousands of dollars in waived fees were part of a wider range of circumstances that caused AMR to pull the plug using its own CAD software rather than integrating with Blount’s.
“There were issues back and forth about a lot of things,” Don Stallions, County General Services director and EMS board chairman, told The Daily Times in a recent telephone interview. “We had constant reporting issues.”
Stallions repeatedly emphasized this system in which AMR and Blount each had their own CAD and never worked. And between Blount’s IT department and the AMRs, no one could make it work the way it should.
‘It was such a long process and in the end it was like,’ Look, why don’t you just go see Spillman? “That would just make it so much easier,” said Stallions. “Spillman” is the Motorola brand that CAD Blount County uses. AMR used a CAD system that already existed in Knox County called Intergraph: when the company came to Blount in 2015, Intergraph came up with it.
When asked why AMR didn’t integrate with Blount’s CAD in 2015, Rodgers said that AMR had already invested time and money in Intergraph and wasn’t willing to give it up at the time.
“(Blount EMS) was then upgrading to a newer CAD, so it just made sense at the time that we would stick with the CAD we were on,” he said.
Six years later, Jimmy Long, director of Blount County 911, told The Daily Times in a recent telephone interview that bringing AMR to the Spillman is fine.
“We are still working on some bugs,” he said, “but everything is working as it should.”
Spencer agreed, saying that while such changes can be expensive and technically complicated, they also have the potential to save more lives.
“It won’t save three to five minutes, but it will probably save us 20-30 seconds (on calls),” he said. “Seconds are important in our industry.”
Multiplying those seconds saved by the 60 to 65 calls that ambulances make every day adds up, he said.
“One of the bigger benefits is that dispatchers can see in real time where the vehicles are,” he added. Moving to Spillman will give them a clearer picture, he said, something Stallions also highlighted.
“Everything works fine, except … they have to come back and integrate FirstWatch,” Stallions explained.
FirstWatch is another piece of software that integrates with the CAD and passes call data to Stallions. Stallions then uses that data to find out how many of those 10 and 15-minute ambulances are hit or missed each month
In essence, without FirstWatch, there couldn’t be a smooth fine system.
But that piece of software was not fully operational in mid-February. Spencer confirmed that experts were still working on it and that they had to manually generate that data in the meantime.
Delays in getting FirstWatch fully operational contributed in part to a lack of information. EMS board members complained at their February 3 meeting.
The board will meet again soon, and with AMR on the new CAD and available data for stallions to report, the system could get closer to performing as the contract intended when the first quarter of 2021 ends, officials said.