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story.lead_photo.caption Cole County Western District Commissioner, Harry Otto, seated at left, is shown details of a particular ambulance by Braden Vomund, middle, and Ned Clifton, of American Response Vehicles in Columbia. ARV is one of several companies presenting to Cole County EMS, commissioners and others as the county looks to replace multiple ambulances. (Julie Smith/News Tribune photo)

The Cole County Commission has begun reviewing potential vendors for the purchase of new ambulances for the county EMS service.

On Monday, representatives of American Response Vehicle gave a presentation to commissioners and EMS staff on what products they could offer.

Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy said they have formed a leadership council at EMS and will have one person from every shift be on the council and be part of the discussions about ambulances.

"Our goal is to get background on the process from various vendors," Hoy said. "We're in the phase of investigating what the specs for our vehicles will look like. Once those specs are completed, then they'll go to request for proposals."

ARV is a company based in North Carolina, but with facilities in Columbia. According to their representatives, the Columbia plant can build new vehicles and do remodels, as well as do repairs on-site.

Company officials said it could take as long as a year before a new ambulance would be able to be delivered because of backlogs due to shortages of parts.

"On Thursday, we'll have representatives from Pinnacle Emergency Vehicles out of Arkansas come and show us some of their products," Hoy said. "We've also been invited by Osage Ambulances in Linn to come to their facility and take a tour."

Hoy said Pinnacle represents Demers, the Canadian company with distributors in the United States; the county's last purchased ambulances came from Demers.

Cole County Auditor Kristen Berhorst said the 2021 county budget included $390,000 for the purchase of two new ambulances. The last three the county purchased in 2020 from Demers cost $192,370 each.

When the county began running the EMS service in 2009, it began purchasing ambulances from Osage Ambulances. The ownership group of the company includes John Kehoe, who is the brother of Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. On Monday, Kehoe spokesperson Amy Berendzen said the lieutenant governor has no personal interest in the company.

But starting in 2018, the commission began buying ambulances from Demers with Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher and former Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle voting in favor while Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman either abstained or voted against the purchases.

Hoelscher and Scheperle said they made their decisions based in part on the information given to them by then-EMS Chief Matt Lindewirth showed the Demers ambulances would cost less than the Osage vehicles.

In July 2020, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported the FBI had called Scheperle and Hoelscher about the commission's decision to buy ambulances from Demers and not Osage. Scheperle later said senior EMS staff had been threatened with loss of employment over the change in who the county bought its ambulances from.

The News Tribune checked with Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman at the Kansas City FBI Office, to see if there had been any movement on a potential investigation. Just as she had said last year, Patton said the only statement she could make was, "We neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation."

For the past few years, the county got quotes for ambulance prices through cooperative pricing. Under government contract purchasing vehicle arrangements, local governments are able to buy products and contract with providers, such as Osage and Demers, that have already been vetted by a federally-approved procurement sourcing agency.

Proponents of cooperative pricing said it can save the local government money in advertising for bids, as well as speed up the purchase.

"I don't know if we'll still do cooperative procurement or if we'll bid them all out," Hoelscher said after Monday's meeting. "Eric's new and has new ideas, and we're going to look at different ways of doing it. I really want to get the input of the EMS staff. They're the ones in and out of them every day."

Hoy said he likes how they're currently going about this process.

"My focus is on safety and usability for the people," Hoy said.

EMS staff at Monday's meeting said having vehicles with four-wheel drive and more room in the patient care area are what they would like to see in new vehicles.

"We are wanting this process as open as possible, and I think what we're doing is the fair way to do it," Bushman said.

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