"We have made a decision after a lot of hard nights and days to propose to Quorum Court Vital Link as our ambulance service," said EMS Board Member Mark Harrington, at the Dec. 7 Izard County Quorum Court meeting.
Vital Link is an ambulance service which specializes in providing emergency medical runs to rural areas in north central Arkansas. Since it currently serves Stone County and Independence County, the move into, nearby, Izard County was called a good match.
"These people are accredited, one of three companies in Arkansas that are accredited," said Harrington. "What we are doing is providing Izard County with probably the best ambulance service we have ever had."
"Vital Link has a long standing history of providing high quality EMS service and we are confident we can come into Izard County and provide the same level of service," Chief Financial Officer Kathy Lanier told Quorum Court and the large crowd gathered for the meeting.
There was relief that an agreement had been reached with an ambulance service, since the county's current contract for service expires at the end of the year.
There was, however, some concern expressed by residents of Horseshoe Bend and the Justices of the Peace who represent the eastern part of the county.
In November, A.E.T., the company hired to provide Izard County service, was purchased by Southern Paramedic Service. Southern agreed to serve out A.E.T.'s contract but immediately shut down the ambulance base in Horseshoe Bend. Southern Paramedic claimed it could afford to keep ambulances only in the center of the county, in Melbourne and Calico Rock. That means Horseshoe Bend residents now face much longer waits for service when an ambulance is needed.
Justices of the Peace Ken Ballman and Wayne Boren quickly asked Vital Link about restoring the Horseshoe Bend ambulance base.
"Your largest group of elderly people is in the eastern part of the county," said Boren. That's a long way from here, a 30 minute drive."
"To be honest with you, we've asked to come in and see what our call volume is and study our response time," said Vital Link Chief Executive Officer Kenny Tosh. "Our goal is going to be to provide you with the best service and quickest response time possible."
Harrington told the meeting that the EMS board has not specified where ambulances should be located. The board has Vital Link's promise of quick response to all residents and trusts the company has the expertise to make the best operational decisions.
A Horseshoe Bend resident was disappointed at that response. "I want to know whether they are measuring it (ambulance locations), strictly, economically or whether they are measuring it in terms of care and safety?"
Horseshoe Bend Mayor Bob Barnes also spoke, pointing out his city is the largest in Izard County and, being a retirement community, has the largest population of elderly residents.
"Since the base in Horseshoe is gone, every run I've followed, Horseshoe Bend has the worst case scenario for our response time, 30 minutes," said Barnes. "People we're talking about lives, minutes make the difference between life and death."
Harrington replied that the EMS Board wants equal service for all residents, saying residents in the southern part of the county have faced slower response times for years.
"The citizens of Horseshoe Bend, though they may outnumber us in number, are not any better or worse than any other citizen in this county," said Harrington.
"I did not say we were better, never," responded Barnes. "I'm here to represent the people of Horseshoe Bend and say 'we need help'."
Vital Link officials asked for time to prove themselves saying they are a not-for-profit company, so they are "not all about economics". The company said, in other counties in operates, it works to better train first responders, like police and fire fighters, so they can provide initial emergency medical assistance until an ambulance arrives.
Vital Link intends to operate two ambulances around the clock and have a third on stand-by. In addition, the company says having ambulances in two neighboring counties, Stone and Independence, will offer additional back-up.
"Izard County had four emergencies come in at the same time one night and we, actually, came to Mount Pleasant from Batesville," said Tosh.
Vital Link wanted the contract quickly approved so it could begin hiring the twelve employees who will staff Izard County. It will, first, try to hire the emergency medical personnel who currently work in the county.
Justices of the Peace unanimously approved the recommendation of the EMS Board to hire Vital Link as the new ambulance service, beginning January first.
"And we thank you for the opportunity to take care of the residents in the county and we look forward to good, positive relationships and we'll be here for many, many years to come" said Vital Link CEO Lanier.