Mission is set to become the latest city in the Rio Grande Valley to implement in-house emergency medical services after the council unanimously approved plans to do so this week.
Presented with proposals to create a fire department-based EMS service that Mission firefighters heavily lobbied for, the council reached an agreement with them to have an in-house service that would be secondary to the city’s primary provider, Med-Care EMS. Under the agreement, the city also would not hire additional personnel for the first year.
“In the proposal they wanted additional staff but we can’t afford to both buy the equipment and to staff it,” said Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña. “However, one of the things that we had asked them the last city council workshop was for them to bring us who’s willing to work with additional duties, because it’s going to be additional duties for the firefighters.”
After the council did receive that list, O’Cana said they felt there was enough people to be able to fulfill the operational needs of providing secondary ambulance services.
“That was a big sell for the city, is that we’re not going to have to go out and hire, right now, EMTs, paramedics and send them to fire academy or vice versa,” said Robert Lopez, a Mission firefighter and president of the Mission Fire Fighters Association.
“So we’re going to use our current staff but if things go the way we foresee it, we’re definitely going to be showing the need,” Lopez said.
Lopez said he and the other firefighters heavily pushed for fire-based EMS because of high volume of calls for service and the lack of a secondary provider for the city.
Mission’s previous secondary provider was Hidalgo County EMS, a privately-owned ambulance service, which filed for bankruptcy. The company’s CEO, Kenneth B. Ponce, then pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bankruptcy fraud in March and the city of Pharr then purchased the company’s assets.
Now Med-Care EMS is also providing secondary services for the city as well as primary but Lopez said they felt the city needed someone to fill potential gaps if for Med-Care wasn’t available.
“Right now, in the city of Mission, all we have is Med-Care so if Med-Care is out, there’s no backup. The city of Mission has no one else to come in,” Lopez said. “We saw the need and that’s when we had to take that proactive approach.”
“It’s nothing against Med-Care,” Lopez added. “Their medics are great, we get along with them, they’re top of the line guys — it’s just right now, COVID is hitting hard. The lack of ambulance companies … it’s just the writing on the wall was there and we just had to move on it.”
Lopez said that among their current staff, they have about 38 medics — three paramedics, two advanced emergency medical technicians and 33 emergency medical technicians.
Though the city won’t be hiring extra personnel for that first year, the plans are to lease or purchase one ambulance and the equipment as well as utilize equipment that they already have.
“Our hope is that in five years, it transitions to a full-based fire EMS where we’re going to be running four to five units for the city of Mission,” Lopez.
Until then, Med-Care EMS is expected to continue serving as the primary EMS as their contract is set for renewal in November. O’Caña, the Mission mayor, explained Med-Care was the only company that applied for the job.
O’Caña added that the he was going to recommend a contract renewal for another three years with two one-year extension options for a possibility of five years in total.
But O’Caña didn’t seem certain on whether the city would be ready for a full-fledged fire-based EMS in that time.
“I made the comment that I felt that we still haven’t researched it enough for us to turn it in five years,” O’Cana said. “I’m confident that the first year may work but I’m not very confident that the fifth year may work.”
Regardless of whether they eventually moved to a full in-house service or not, O’Caña reassured the public that the city would not have gaps in their coverage.
“At no time does our plan have no ambulance service,” he said. “There is 24-hour coverage in all the plans that we have.”