Without support, ambulance service in Tonopah ‘in danger of collapse’

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series of stories in the Tonopah Times-Bonanza &Goldfield News, looking at challenges facing rural medicine in the region with the closure last year of Tonopah’s hospital.

When it comes to challenges facing the volunteer ambulance service in Tonopah and other rural communities, Nye Regional Medical Center’s closure nearly a year ago is continuing to create problems in Tonopah and beyond.

“There’s been a horrible side effect to that,” Nye County Emergency Management Director Vance Payne said of Nye Regional’s closure. “We’ve been losing volunteers left and right all over the county…”

“Without support, the system is in danger of collapse, and I mean that,” Payne told the crowd at a recent Tonopah workshop. “We may be forced, in a worst-case scenario, to cut down the number of stations that we have open.”

With no hospital in Tonopah, the nearest hospital is more than 100 miles away in Bishop, California and Hawthorne in Nevada’s Mineral County. That means the volunteer ambulance staffers are away from their homes, families and jobs for up to six hours at a time when return trips to Tonopah from Bishop or Hawthorne are included.

“We can barely staff the ambulances,” Payne also said. “Your EMTs are exhausted. We need people to try to think about stepping up and becoming an EMT.”

Nye County’s ambulance service — also known as Nye County Emergency Medical Services — is located in Amargosa, Beatty, Tonopah, Gabbs and Smoky Valley. (Pahrump operates its own separate service).

“It’s a very delicate, fragile system,” Payne said, citing financial and staffing challenges, among other multiple issues.

“This is a big deal, and it’s not just Tonopah,” he said. “I can’t emphasize this enough. This over our whole county.”

Terrifying thought,

‘skeleton crews’

Putting the situation in personal terms, Payne drives about 1,000 miles per month within Nye County.

“The thought of crashing out there at midnight is not a warm fuzzy,” he said. “And the thought that nobody would come is terrifying.”

In the Tonopah region, three EMTs are on staff, Payne said in an interview. That is separate from the Life Guard ground paramedic crew and the county’s paid staff, Payne said, which totaled one full-time person and three part-time people. Mutual aid also is available through Goldfield in Esmeralda County.

About a year ago, Nye County’s ambulance service featured 66 people countywide. Payne estimates the number has fallen to half that.

Nye County currently is “down to skeleton crews” at its five ambulance stations.

That “basically means we have people who are on call 24 (hours) and seven (days),” Payne said. “This has been very difficult. Currently in Tonopah, you guys have gotten down to such low numbers, I’ve been paying personnel to be here (Tonopah) for the last three months.”

“We’ve been doing it off and on in Beatty and in Amargosa,” he said. “Smoky Valley, has by the grace of God, been able to hold on …But they are still not out of the woods.”

Those Smoky Valley ambulance crews need to take patients all the way to Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon or to a hospital in Battle Mountain.

“Depending on where you’re at, Smoky Valley is probably in the worst shape, and it’s not much better here (Tonopah),” Payne said of the county’s ambulance system.

“The one in Gabbs is just running on fumes,” he said. “It’s not an actual working ambulance service. But we still keep a medic there. We made a special dispensation with the state to be able to operate.”

Life Guard changes

Just six days after the workshop, Life Guard International/Flying ICU of Las Vegas announced that starting Aug. 8 it no longer would keep its medical aircraft stationed in Tonopah 24 hours, seven days. Costs were cited.

Life Guard did commit to keeping its ground paramedic staffing to assistant volunteer ambulance crews in the Tonopah area until Aug. 25 with the offer of an extension beyond that date.

Earlier this year, another company, Symons Ambulance of Bishop left the Tonopah area, citing losses of more than $15,000 per month.

“When they left, that put us in very dire straits,” Payne said, adding that Life Guard made a big difference.

“It’s put a paramedic on the street, but it’s not a long-term fix,” he said. “It can’t stay that way …Because they’re (Life Guard) running with us, they’re making nothing from that.”

“I am absolutely living in fear that they have to leave,” Payne said July 27 at the workshop. “Because they are not a nonprofit organization.”

Contact reporter David Jacobs at djacobs@tonopahtimes.com


— Those with suggestions, comments or interested in getting involved in the Nye County ambulance service are encouraged to contact Nye County at 775-751-4278 or email demdo@co.nye.nv.us.


— See David Jacobs’ column inside today’s newspaper to see what Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman is saying about the situation.

— See upcoming stories in the Times-Bonanza looking closer at the challenges faced by the Nye County ambulance service, including finances and choices residents face.