Volunteer ambulance service collapsing in Nye County town

A private nonprofit community-based service is stepping in for a short-term period as Tonopah has lost its 24/7 volunteer ambulance.

Reno-based Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, REMSA, which provides ground ambulance services under a performance-based franchise agreement with the Washoe County Health District, arrived in Tonopah on Monday.

The initial contract runs through Nov. 27 to provide 24/7 full-scale pre-hospital care along with transport, Nye County officials said.

Commissioner Lorinda Wichman, whose district includes Tonopah, said the solution is temporary and said she hopes it to be “the first step in a more permanent solution.”

“The county emergency management and county administration is continually working on the tenuous ambulance service issue in Central Nevada to find a more sustainable and permanent solution,” Wichman said.

Tonopah’s volunteer ambulance crew was down to two people last week, and was scheduled to shut down on Monday prompting the Northern Nye County Hospital District Board to send an SOS message ahead of the Thanksgiving week.

Emergency Management and Nye County Administration have worked through the weekend to address the ambulance situation and was able to sign a temporary agreement with REMSA, according to the statement released by Nye County.

For months, Tonopah volunteer ambulance had been operating with one full-time emergency management employee and up to five volunteers. Recently, the ambulance crew was down to two volunteers and then one volunteer due to volunteers’ family and medical issues last week.

Roni Link, a Tonopah native and one of the remaining volunteers, said it has been hard to operate a 24/7 ambulance service with a small crew.

“From the EMS perspective, we’d really like more people, you can’t keep an area this big going with just four people that have full-time jobs and families and other obligations,” Link said in an interview.

Officials said the Nye County Emergency Management Service is dependent on the revenue in an enterprise fund which is generated by the ambulance runs. While the enterprise fund can entice volunteers with a meager stipend, larger stipends are not sustainable without a source of revenue for the Emergency Management Service Department.

Tonopah lost the Nye Regional Medical Center in August 2015 after it closed the doors due to the grim financial situation. Reno-based Renown Health has since started providing Tonopah’s residents with telemedicine, a service that connects patients and doctors via televised appearance. Tonopah however still lacks a full-time physician and an emergency room.

Wichman said for the past two years, she has been working to find a sustainable source of revenue for Emergency Management Service and the newly formed Northern Nye County Hospital District, which has a governing board and revenue coming in to support efforts to attract medical services to Central Nevada.

“Even though the two are related, EMS is a separate issue,” Wichman said. “Nye County has gained the sympathy of agencies from Nevada to Washington, D.C., but sympathy doesn’t pay the bills, we need partners in paying for the service. So far, those efforts have not produced revenue.”

Although Nye County Emergency Management Service provides an avenue to attract grants to pay for equipment, supplies, training and coordination efforts, those grants can’t pay for wages, fuel, and maintenance, Wichman said.

“Nye County needs to be able to employ emergency medical technicians or paramedics throughout the county and we have to be able to generate the revenue regardless of collections for the service,” Wichman said.

Since Nov. 8, Wichman said she has been working with Nye County staff to secure a source of revenue that will provide the funds required to maintain the service throughout the communities of Nye County.

“Translation: a service fee on the tax bills. In the years that I have been working on this issue, I have yet to have a resident tell me they don’t see the need. If we want the service, we are going to have to pay for it,” Wichman said in an email.

In addition, Nye County has recently agreed to spend up to $200,000 on the purchase of three new ambulances, one of which is going to be funded by the $100,000 donation from SolarReserve, parent of Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project outside of Tonopah.

In a Facebook post, the Northern Nye County Hospital District Board lauded REMSA’s willingness to help Tonopah, as the entity will be on call throughout the Thanksgiving season.

“Things will be different for a while and I am not sure when or if things will ever be normal again, but, this won’t be the first or last big change for Tonopah … but we are resilient like that,” the post said. “We not only persevere but SURVIVE.”

Officials said Nye County will appeal to the Northern Nye County Hospital District Board and the Board of Nye County Commissioners for a long-term solution in the coming weeks.

Contact reporter Daria Sokolova at dsokolova@pvtimes.com. On Twitter: @dariasokolova77