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Ambulance revenues soaring in Calexico

April 03, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — The Calexico fire chief and the city finance director were both "astonished" when the money started pouring in.

"It's been a few months now that the numbers have been hitting my desk," said Calexico Fire Chief Carlos Escalante.

"The numbers" are a 300 percent increase in money generated by the Calexico Fire Department's ambulance and emergency services.

Veronica Alvarado, Calexico's interim finance director, said a Bay Area ambulance billing company, SkyMed, should be given credit for the revenue jump.

"In fiscal year 1999 (July 1999-March 2000) we brought in $82,000. In fiscal year 2000 we brought in $288,000," Alvarado said.

SkyMed was hired in September 1999.

Before that the city had been using a billing service that wasn't as efficient in dealing with Medicare, insurance companies and private payments that make up the bulk of ambulance service revenue, Alvarado said.

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Escalante, fire chief for nine years and a 26-year veteran of the department, predicts the revenue could skyrocket to more than $700,000 in a few years.

"Call volume increases 15 to 100 percent a year," he said.

The vast majority of calls the department receives are for emergency services.

"Ninety percent of the 125 to 150 calls that come in per month" regard emergencies, Escalante said.

He said he hopes the increase in revenue will translate into the hiring of more firefighter/paramedics or even mean a new fire station.

"The city is growing but the Fire Department is not keeping up," Escalante said. "Right now we are getting by with eight men per shift but we need more."

The department is manned by 24 firefighters running three shifts. The minimum number of firefighters that can legally work a shift is seven.

"What if one of the guys gets sick?" Escalante asked.

In the summer months Escalante said he will need even more help.

Federal regulations limit how long a firefighter can work in intense heat to 20 minutes.

In the Imperial Valley that intense heat period begins in May and runs through September, Escalante said.

After working for 20 minutes, the firefighter must take off his breathing apparatus and protective gear. He is then required to take in fluids and find some shade to avoid dehydrating.

Escalante said it takes 20 to 30 minutes of rehab before a firefighter can return to battle a blaze in hot weather.

With the new homes being built in Calexico every day and the "100,000 immigrants coming through every year" Escalante is having a hard time stretching the department's resources to fight fires and respond to calls.

Making matters worse is the Calexico Hospital situation, he said.

"Since there has been no hospital in Calexico for years the residents rely on the ambulance service provided by the Fire Department for emergency services," Escalante said.

"I've delivered babies and I've seen people die."

The department runs two ambulances, keeping one in reserve for big emergencies.

If those ambulances are busy, a fire truck with all lifesaving equipment is dispatched. After assisting a patient, firefighters work with a secondary carrier to get the patient to a hospital.

Escalante said a trip to El Centro Regional Medical Center to drop off a patient, or in some cases going as far as Brawley to Pioneers Memorial Hospital, means one of his units is out of commission for an hour.

"If they opened up the Heffernan Memorial Hospital (in Calexico) and offered an intensive care unit it would be a big help to me," he said.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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