The state Emergency Medical Services Authority has taken the unprecedented step of giving county Health Care Agency officials an additional six months to divvy up new ambulance service contracts for 19 cities.

The county’s original deadline for securing contracts with ambulance firms that transport 911 patients to local hospitals was Sept. 1. But after months of political infighting and dysfunction within the HCA and Orange County Fire Authority it became clear to officials that they wouldn’t make the deadline.

Dr. Howard Backer, director of the state Authority, wrote the county that the unique extension was being granted to allow adequate time to examine bidder resources, conduct training for the new system, and perform field audits of the winning bidders.

The time crunch was created in February when the Health Care Agency was ordered by the state to take over the ambulance selection process from the Fire Authority, because the county was violating legal requirements.

This meant the 19 cities lost the ability to select ambulance firms for their respective jurisdictions; all of which use Fire Authority paramedics for 911 calls.

The state still must approve of the county’s methods for ambulance selection, officials say, before the county can begin the process.

County officials were anticipating starting that process on May 19, but that may be overly ambitious.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at

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