ALICIA ROBINSON, STAFF PHOTO
Riverside and Symons Ambulance are suing each other over whether the company can do business in the city. Here is a summary of their arguments. City: Alleges Symons violated municipal code by operating without a city franchise and ignored letters and citations; asks court to order Symons to stop transporting patients in Riverside. Symons: Alleges state law doesn’t give city authority to oversee ambulance companies, and that city officials interfered with Symons employees on the job; asks court to rule on city’s regulatory powers.
It sounds like drama ripped from a TV script: emergency medical workers rushing a heart attack patient to a hospital get blocked from the ER entrance by a rival company that until recently was the only game in town. But the anecdote comes from officials with San Bernardino-based Symons Ambulance, who say it happened in October in Riverside. Officials from the rival ambulance service deny the incident occurred. Symons and the city recently filed dueling lawsuits against each other over Riverside’s longstanding franchise system, which regulates non-emergency ambulance service in the city. The filings have turned the heat back up on an issue that seemed all but resolved, after changes in city management and tweaks to city regulations. Riverside’s attorneys say Symons has continued transporting patients in violation of the city’s municipal code, despite two cease-and-desist letters and at least five citations with fines of $1,800, the city’s lawsuit claims. Symons officials say the city has harassed the company’s employees and tried to stop them from providing service, and that Riverside “has no authority to regulate non-emergency medical services” under state law, according to the company’s suit. The legal battle and its dramatic allegations broke out a few months after Riverside allowed new ambulance providers for the first time, and just as the city seemed on the verge of even further relaxing its control. AUTHORITY DISPUTED Riverside County oversees 911 ambulance service through a near-exclusive contract with American Medical Response. Non-emergency trips — those that require some medical care but are scheduled in advance — are provided around the county by any company that can meet Riverside County’s requirements. Riverside is the only city in the county with a separate, more stringent franchise system, which critics say for years created a de facto monopoly for AMR. After nearly two years of mulling the issue, Riverside in 2013 rewrote its franchise rules, and by early 2015 had allowed four ambulance companies to join AMR in providing non-emergency service. Symons was not among them. Raul Garcia, an attorney for the company, said Symons has done business in Riverside since about 2010. State law gives counties the power to regulate all ambulance services, he said, and the company meets the county’s requirements. “The city has absolutely no authority other than to say, ‘If you’re going to do business in our city, … get a business license,’” Garcia said. “We’re saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, you can’t impose illegal requirements on us and expect us to comply.’” Riverside officials have maintained the city has the right to regulate non-emergency ambulances within its boundaries. Interim City Attorney Kristi Smith said Symons was warned twice and cited several times but still won’t follow the city’s rules. ER BATTLES Besides sending letters and hitting the company with citations, Symons’ suit alleges now-retired Interim Fire Chief Mike Esparza blocked a company vehicle, took pictures of employees and a patient they were transporting, and threatened the company with criminal prosecution.