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Officials pick new ambulance company to serve the Alpine and Marathon area

The move comes after the company that provided emergency medical services to north Brewster County residents suddenly shut down in January. Local leaders had initially considered starting a county-run ambulance service, but ultimately moved away from that option.

By Travis Bubenik

Big Bend area officials have settled on their pick for a new ambulance provider for northern Brewster County.

At simultaneous meetings Tuesday evening, Brewster County Commissioner Court and the Alpine City Council both voted to pay El Paso-based company Emergent Air to provide emergency medical services for the county’s northern half.

The move follows weeks of discussions and a community task force looking into how to keep ambulances running in the rural county after the area’s decades-long EMS provider shut down in January.

The task force, led by current Terlingua Fire and EMS Chief Greg Henington, had at one point considered the option of a county-run ambulance service, but officials moved away from that idea after Henington put together a preliminary budget which showed the operation would ultimately lose money.

“It would’ve been nice to build our own from scratch, but how many of us have the money and time for that?” Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano asked at Tuesday’s county meeting.

At their respective meetings, commissioners and city council members voted unanimously to select Emergent Air after a recommendation from the task force.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said the members of the task force had settled on the company in part because of the good reviews they heard from people outside the Big Bend region.

“They’re down to earth,” he said. “I believe that’s the kind of people we are.”

In recent weeks, representatives from Emergent Air and two other EMS companies pitched their services at public meetings about what they could offer the area. The companies took questions on everything from how many ambulances they would use to why they were interested in serving a small community like Alpine.

“This is the heart and soul of America,” Emergent Air President Lee King told Alpine City Council members at a March 10 meeting. He brought up the work of the late Mike Scudder, the owner of the area’s former ambulance operator.

“He set up a good legacy,” King said. “And we want to expand on that and continue to grow and make a good home.”

Emergent Air has agreed to initially be paid the same rates the city and county was previously paying for ambulance service, about $28,000 per month or $336,000 annually.

Still, the company’s representatives have acknowledged that those rates could go up in the future.

City council member Chris Rodriguez pressed all three EMS bidders on the matter at the March 10 meeting.

“I know that you all have agreed to the amount that we were being charged previously,” she said. “For how long will that be?”

“We really don’t know what to expect, to be honest with you,” King responded.

Emergent Air’s president suggested the cost to the city and county could even go down if the company performs well, presumably meaning if the firm pulls in enough revenue on its own, but he declined to make promises on future rates.

“The reality is, that’s kind of a hard question to ask until we know what tomorrow looks like and the day after,” King said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Cano said that whatever contracts the county and/or city enter into with the company would last a year or two and wouldn’t be “set in stone” beyond that.

“Performance is going to be one of the things we’re looking at,” he said. “If things at some point go south, then obviously we’re going to go back to the table and look at our other options.”

County commissioners and the Alpine City Council still have to vote to approve either separate contracts or a joint contract with Emergent Air before the company could begin operating in the area. It’s still not clear which approach officials will take.

Walter Kuykendall, Program Director for Emergent Air, said the company would be ready to take over operations in north Brewster County by May 1.

“We have every intention and we believe we’re gonna be able to do that without any problems,” he said.

That timeline aligns with the plans of Terlingua Fire and EMS, which had been covering the Alpine area since January. The Terlingua crew had previously set a deadline of returning to only covering the county’s southern region by the beginning of May.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.