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Tacoma Fire Department set to re-bid controversial ambulance contract

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on May 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
May 10, 2011 4:15 pm

Tacoma fire officials said today they’ll be ready to re-issue a formal solicitation for private ambulance services later this month, more than seven months after the City Council tossed out a tentative bid recommendation to award the contract to a new vendor.

But even after working for months to ensure the new bidding process will be clear, fire officials warned that further controversy may be unavoidable when the ambulance contract is ultimately awarded this summer.

“Based on our experience, an appeal is likely,” Tacoma Fire Medical Services Officer Roger Edington told the council today.

Re-bidding the ambulance contract comes after the council voted 5 to 4 in October to disregard a selection panel’s recommendation to award the city’s private ambulance services to American Medical Response Ambulance Service of Greenwood Village, Colo.   The council majority agreed with an appeal from the runner-up bidder, Everett-based Rural Metro of Greater Seattle, that the city’s solicitation wasn’t clear about city assessment fees for dispatch services.

Rural Metro, which has held the contract to provide basic life support emergency services and transport for the Tacoma Fire Department since 2004 (TFD handles advanced life support services and transport on its own), contended that that part of the bid scoring was confusing.

Specifically, lawyers for the company argued each bidder calculated repayments to the city for its dispatch services differently because of unclear language in the city’s solicitation.  The dispatch fees were the only category of the multi-part bid in which AMR scored higher than Rural Metro.  Consequently, AMR’s bid outscored Rural Metro’s by 17 points out of a possible 1,000.

In preparing the new solicitation,  Edington, who has administered the ambulance contract since 2004, said he and other selection panel members debriefed representatives from the two companies that competed during the last bid process to help refine solicitation language and other bidding requirements.

“We asked for suggestions of how the process could have been done in a different manner and have a little bit more clarity,” Edington said.

The selection committee will also be working with an outside consultant to assist with the procurement process, he said.

Assistant Fire Chief James Duggan added that, instead of making each bidder calculate assessment fees for dispatch services as a competitive criteria within bids, the new solicitation will simply include the charges as a pre-calculated requirement.

“The number will be set this time,” Duggan said. “… It will be very clear. It will be a dollar figure.”

City Manager Eric Anderson and Mike Fitzgerald, Assistant to the Fire Chief for Finance and Data Management, each told the council that it’s important to charge the winning vendor for the city’s dispatch services, as significant costs are borne by the city to provide them.

“The population served by (private ambulance services) isn’t necessarily the same population that pays for the dispatch,” Anderson added.  He noted that people who visit or work in Tacoma may receive the ambulance services, but costs for the city’s dispatch services are paid entirely by city residents.

Along with explaining changes, fire officials provided the council with an expected timeline for the bid process.  It will provide bidders with two months to prepare bids and will include at least two “pre-submittal” meetings with bidders, Edington said. A formal RFP is expected to go out May 24, with the City Council expected to consider a bid recommendation on Aug. 30.

Even with the changes, city officials warned the new bidding process could still draw appeals.  Along with appeals to Tacoma’s ambulance contracts in 2004 and 2010, Edington noted similar contract awards have drawn appeals in Orlando, Fla., and in three California counties in 2010.

“Contesting these awards is standard operating procedure in this industry,” added Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who noted such contracts are “huge” and “very competitive.”

City officials have said the six-year ambulance contract is expected to raise the winning vendor more than $3 million, depending on billable services.  Under the contract, costs for emergency services and transport will be passed along to ambulance clients, not to the city.

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