An American Medical Response ambulance in San Diego. Photo by Megan Wood for inewsource

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the City Council committee was waiting for an independent review before moving the contract to the full council for consideration.

The San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee sidestepped making a recommendation on a controversial ambulance services contract, instead voting to put the bid before the full council.

The committee took this action while asking for a report from the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst on the financial outlook for the presumptive winning bidder, Falck USA.

“It’s hard to know what to do as someone who cares deeply about the workers when the workers are asking us to do different things,” said City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who made the motion to request an independent financial report on Falck.

The committee voted 4-0 Wednesday to send the contract proposal to the full council.

“Falck is excited to be one step closer to becoming the City of San Diego’s emergency services provider,” said Troy Hagen, chief commercial officer of Falck USA. “There were a couple of concerns raised in (the committee) meeting, but we’re confident that they can be put to rest quickly.”

San Diego currently uses American Medical Response for its exclusive paramedic contract, which expires on June 30, 2022.

Falck, a Danish company which has its North American headquarters in Orange County, appears poised to secure the contract to exclusively provide San Diego’s ambulance services following a preliminary five-year contract signed in December.

The city issued a request for bids last April, three companies replied, and ultimately city staff recommended approval of Falck’s nearly $7.5 million-per-year contract bid, which is $1.6 million below AMR’s contract.

Falck opponents include civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, who last week penned an opinion piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune attacking the company for what he claims is poor, inequitable service.

“San Diego’s leaders appear to be careening toward a massive debacle with their controversial selection of a new 911 emergency ambulance provider, Falck,” he wrote. “The Denmark-based company has been accused of inequitable service and unjust practices in the United States, and there is great concern that the move could undermine San Diego’s commitment to racial equality.”

Sharpton pointed to labor and response time complaints since the company took over services in California’s Alameda County. He also alleged that “Falck was also the emergency services provider that supplied ketamine in Aurora, Colorado, which was used to sedate Elijah McClain when he was unjustly arrested and died in 2019.”

Falck denied Sharpton’s claims in regard to its California service.

“Falck is disappointed that parties from outside San Diego at the 11th hour would attempt to undermine the City of San Diego’s multi-year process to select the most qualified and reliable ambulance provider,” Hagen wrote. “Falck’s response times for life-threatening emergencies in the predominantly Black and Brown urban areas in Alameda County were, on average, 1 minute and 19 seconds faster than in the remainder of the county.”

Hagen said the transition to Falck’s services would be a smooth one and noted the bid had already been vetted twice by city analysts.

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Colin Stowell called the issue “contentious” but urged that the contract with Falck be signed soon, telling the committee that paramedics and the public are waiting. He said the Falck bid includes 120 more daily ambulance hours and a larger fleet of ambulances.

More than 40 people called in to the committee meeting, with some denouncing Falck and others wanting the deal signed with the company immediately.

Keith Maddox, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said Falck was “notorious” for union busting and had a poor labor record. He urged the committee to “not gamble” with lives and livelihoods.

An AMR employee said when San Diego employees for the company were surveyed, a full third said they would not work for Falck and wanted to stay with AMR.

Multiple Falck employees from Alameda County also called in to ask the city not to move forward with Falck.

City Councilman Raul Campillo said he was deeply concerned about employees, but noted the San Diego Association of Prehospital Professionals had seen nothing to give it pause with the contract.

The IBA report should be ready in “about a month,” according to Baku Patel, IBA fiscal and policy analyst. The contract will then be docketed for consideration by the council.

Updated at 5:50 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021

City News Service contributed to this article.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.