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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tower ambulance service shifts to rebuilding mode

Nine new responders hired this month, new business plan in the works

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 9/23/20

TOWER— The hiring of nine new ambulance personnel earlier this month has boosted the active roster for the Tower Area Ambulance Service to the highest number in some years, and provides the …

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Tower ambulance service shifts to rebuilding mode

Nine new responders hired this month, new business plan in the works

Posted

TOWER— The hiring of nine new ambulance personnel earlier this month has boosted the active roster for the Tower Area Ambulance Service to the highest number in some years, and provides the service the capacity to look at revisions to the costly paid-on-call program implemented in 2018 by former ambulance director Steve Altenburg.
The new hires include seven emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, and two emergency medical responders, or EMRs. All come with the required training, and some bring considerable experience from other area ambulance services to Tower, according to ambulance director Dena Suihkonen. While some live in the Tower-Soudan area, others live in Cook, Embarrass, Babbitt, and Britt.
“With the changes and upheaval, many who applied did so based on seeing the need,” said Suihkonen. “They are coming to do what EMS does… help.”
The hirings come as the TAAS is working on a business plan that could lead to changes in how the service staffs its operations. The current pay rate for paid on-call staff, set by Altenburg in 2018, is much higher than other small ambulance services and that has put financial stress on the TAAS, which is likely to run a substantial deficit this year. That’s due, in part, to the nearly $160,000 final payment for the new ambulance that the service ordered in 2018. At the same time, the TAAS experienced a substantial decline in emergency runs in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown beginning in late March, which has cut revenues.
The decline in emergency calls was a widespread phenomenon, affecting ambulance services across the country as the public largely hunkered down at home for weeks. While the number of emergency calls has since rebounded, the uptick is unlikely to make up for the losses earlier in the year. As of the end of August, the TAAS was down 69 runs over the same period last year.
At the same time, the TAAS has sharply reduced the number of inter-hospital transfers it accepts to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to staff as well as due to questions about the financial benefits of the transfers. Several analyses of the costs associated with transfers have found that the non-emergency runs provide the TAAS little actual profit in many cases, once the depreciation of ambulances and other costs are taken into account. The city agreed earlier this year to pay $1.64 per mile driven on non-emergency transfers into the city- and township-funded ambulance replacement account, a commitment that further diminished the financial benefits of transfers to TAAS’s operating margins.
The financial concerns over the current paid on-call system and its higher-than-normal pay structure are key issues in the current business planning process, which is being facilitated by Betsy Olivanti with the Northeast Minnesota Business Development Center. “The business plan is still in the draft stage,” said Suihkonen. “As with any plan that has merit, doing our due diligence and using the most accurate data will create a plan to show us the best route forward.”
The business planning will examine three different models to determine which one best meets the needs of the community and provides financial stability. “We’ll look at the data to determine the future of the service.”
Suihkonen said all of the new hires were aware that the TAAS may implement significant changes based on the outcome of the business planning and any ultimate decisions by TAAS leadership and the city council. “In the interviews, we advised them that a business plan is in process and that this could change the look and pay scale of the paid on-call program and every single applicant was perfectly fine working for us within a different model or pay structure,” Suihkonen added.
While adjustments to the paid on-call system are likely, Suihkonen said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach. “I’m not here to force any type of model,” she said. “The business plan will dictate the best future route with the paid on-call model. Until all the data has been looked at, I’m not comfortable making assumptions on its future.”
Reduced overtime
The new employees will also allow the TAAS to staff its operations without incurring much overtime. While former director Altenburg suggested to some hires in 2018 that they could expect 60 hours per week, he refused to acknowledge an overtime obligation. But city officials in Tower now recognize that potential liability, and are planning to staff to sharply reduce or eliminate overtime. Other area ambulance services already routinely limit paid-on-call hours to 40 per week for exactly that reason.
The new hires include the following:
EMTs: Dana Blaeser, Lisa Hanover, Teresa Lanyk, Robert Peterson, Ariana Picard, Taunya Teska-Erickson.
EMRs: Jason Picard, Karen Schultz.

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