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A private ambulance service that transported more than a half-million patients a year in six states abruptly shut down without explanation, leaving dozens of cities and towns scrambling for medical transportation options Monday without a word of warning.
First Med EMS, based in Wilmington, N.C., served hospitals and other medical facilities in more than 70 municipalities in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. It operated under the names TransMed, Life Ambulance and MedCorp, boasting in publicity materials: "We take pride in our performance and the safety of our patients. We refuse to compromise on this."
First Med's website was inaccessible Monday, and calls to corporate offices either reached disconnected lines or weren't answered. Company workers said in Facebook posts and tweets that they were told the corporation had declared bankruptcy, but no bankruptcy documents were yet on file Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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First Med was the largest EMS service in Ohio, where at least 1,500 paramedics and other medical workers were left jobless in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown, and numerous smaller towns.
First Med also provided services in Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News in Virginia, as well as Wilmington, N.C.
Much of First Med's business was "non-emergent" transportation — such as taking dialysis patients to their weekly treatments and shuttling nursing home patients to doctors' appointments — and officials in some cities said there should be little impact on patient treatment.
"The unfortunate thing was lack of notice," Larry Stephens, ambulance service director for Camden Clark Medical Center in Parkersburg, W.Va., told NBC station WTAP. "They closed up shop on Friday, and people were scrambling to get to their appointments all weekend, plus early this week."
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Many of the company's approximately 2,300 employees learned about the shutdown from colleagues. When they tried to show up for work Saturday, they found locked doors.
"I found out on Facebook and from a co-worker that I no longer had a job," Stacey Carpenter, a First Med dispatcher in Wilmington, told NBC station WECT. "I am absolutely devastated. I don't know what I am going to do."
Dispatch services in several cities reported that First Med called them Friday night and Saturday to stop all requests for emergency runs. Workers who were in the middle of their shifts were told to turn around and go home.
"We didn't know what to do," Derek Griffin, an emergency medical technician in Hopewell, Va., told NBC station WWBT of Richmond.
"They told us to turn our truck in, to turn our equipment in. That was it," he said. "It was done so shadily and so behind closed doors."
Medical facilities said the shutdown took them by surprise, too, and at least one county — Bertie County, N.C. — declared a state of emergency at noon Monday. The county board of commissioners said in a statement that it would pursue legal claims against First Med.
—By M. Alex Johnson of NBC News