Pyro-medics of WNY

In my home town of Buffalo, NY Rural/Metro Ambulance has gotten some national attention for two scandals.   The Buffalo News reports that the company is being investigated for fraudulent billing and that management attempted to cover up being aware of  two of their EMT’s starting fires.

Fraudulent Medicare billing by ambulance services has become about as newsworthy as Paula Dean having diabetes. It was covered on a recent EMS Garage Podcast about how difficult the criminals make it for the good guys.

Federal agents are now inquiring about practices at Rural/Metro Medical Services of Western New York, according to former and current employees of the region’s largest ambulance provider.

Publicly, the FBI would neither confirm nor deny a probe. And Rural/Metro’s recently promoted general manager here, Jay Smith, said he knew of no federal inquiry into Rural/Metro of Western New York.

Now an FBI investigation does not equal guilt, nor does the Buffalo News always deliver fair and balanced coverage.  But apparently there are a few other things Jay Smith didn’t know about.  The arson scandal is over the top.

Rural/Metro’s managers insisted on being interviewed for this article at the office of the crisis-management expert they first hired when their EMTs were charged in the arson case, Steve Bell of the firm Eric Mower and Associates.

In the fall of 2009, a number of vacant buildings were being set on fire in Buffalo.  R/M managers were allegedly made aware that two EMT’s may be setting the fires while on duty.   R/M managers claim that there was an internal investigation about this.

“… Both crew members adamantly deny any involvement in the fire,” he continued. “

Did you set those buildings on fire? Good.  Now get back to work.

Seeing no action from management, an employee alerted Buffalo fire investigators, who arrested the two EMTs in June 2009 and obtained convictions. A Buffalo fire official confirmed that the tip came not from Rural/Metro managers but a rank-and-file employee who said supervisors had been notified.

But wait, there’s more.

Rural/Metro workers suspected EMTs Jonathan R. Safe and Lyndsey Sgro, crew members on a Rural/Metro ambulance. Both were eventually arrested and convicted of arson crimes. Among the clues that made co-workers suspicious: text messages from one or both hinting at their involvement in fires — while on duty.

OMG, you mean some of the people I sent into people’s homes at the worst, most vulnerable moments of there lives were arsonists?

“We investigated this thoroughly,” said John M. Rusinski, the company’s risk manager, who also is a volunteer firefighter in West Seneca and who recently joined the Town Board. “It was a he-said, she-said. … We did our due diligence,” he insisted.

Apparently there’s more than one Barney Fife in management at R/M.

To further complicate matters, Sgro was living with a Rural/Metro supervisor, Michael Arquette. He posted her bail, and the court records indicate they shared the same Cheektowaga address.

I’m sure the supervisor/roommate/bail poster was as shocked as the whistle-blowers were. But there’s just one more thing…

But to Jonathan Safe, Rural/Metro’s internal inquiry does not register as a factor in his arrest.

“How were you discovered?” he was asked during his first parole hearing in November 2010.

“I have no idea. They picked us up one day after work and brought us downtown,” he answered.

So apparently Mr. UnSafe was working as an EMT while being investigated for arson.

In addressing the assertions of some current and former employees, Smith said the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services recently accredited Rural/Metro here — the “only prehospital care provider in Western New York to successfully complete the voluntary review process,” the company said in a news release.

Good for them.  I couldn’t find the news release on their website.  Maybe the News didn’t publish some great STEMI or cardiac arrest data they have.  Maybe they participate in the CARES Registry.  I don’t even care about their response times. Perhaps a R/M official can enlighten me about this so I’ll feel a little better about them taking care of one of my relatives.

After waving the CAAS flag, someone drops the “no one will show up” scare tactic.

If Rural/Metro leaves, who is left to pick up the slack? There is nobody,” said Jamie Bono of Buffalo, a former Rural/Metro paramedic and a former fellow with the Center for Disaster Preparedness who now works as an assistant professor of English at Daemen College.  “That’s my concern as a Buffalo resident … who comes in to pick up the slack?” he said.

The threat of no one showing up for a medical emergency is used as an excuse to stop implementing any real standards.  It has also followed:

If EMT class is more than 100 hours…

If paramedics are required to have a degree…

If  tax money is needed for EMS…

If we have to pay people more then minimum wage

If we don’t allow potential arsonists have to do comprehensive background checks…

If we have physical fitness standards…

I never worked for R/M.  I have worked for other McEMS companies whose application process did not include a comprehensive background check or attempt to screen potential arsonists.

What we do is important. It can only be done well by good people. A lot of EMS people don’t take our important work seriously.  The arsonists’ former managers don’t seem to care about having good people do our important work. That makes me angry.  All compassionate, motivated, and professional EMS caregivers should be angry too.  Then we need to do something about it.




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