Battle Creek

How Larry Anderson built a better ambulance service for Battle Creek

A paperwork “screwup” during Larry Anderson's time in the Army set him on a career path he had never thought about and would establish the Battle Creek resident as a national expert in the area of ambulance services.

“I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Service Medical Corps and I had no experience,” Anderson says. “I spent one year in Korea and was the Medical Services administrator for an Italian aid station where I had a fleet of six ambulances. When I got back to the states, the last year I was in the service I was in Milwaukee, and I moonlighted as an ambulance attendant with a private ambulance service and absolutely knew how not to run an ambulance service.”

Anderson is credited with raising the professionalism of ambulance care locally and taking it from basic transportation of patients to an advanced life support service.

What began as an accident led to administrative posts at various hospitals and medical centers. It also led to Anderson’s founding of LifeCare Ambulance Service in 1982, originally known as Cereal City EMS.  

Discussions about starting an ambulance service began one month after he started working for the former Leila Y. Post Montgomery Hospital as its Chief Operating Officer.

Leila merged with the former Community Hospital in 1988 to form Battle Creek Health System.

“The most interesting part of being at Leila was that shortly after I got there the CEO of Community Hospital and the city manager at that time came to me and said, ‘We understand you know something about ambulances.’ I told them that I did and they said, ‘Good, your job is to start an advanced life support ambulance service for Battle Creek.'

“At that time we had two nonprofit, volunteer ambulance services in Bedford and Emmett townships. They didn’t want to treat trauma, but they did want to take all of the patients who needed transport services back to their homes.”

The city manager told Anderson that he wanted the ambulance service to begin in 1982 to coincide with the merger of the City and Battle Creek Township, a move requested by the Kellogg Co. 

Anderson recalls that the leaders of the Bedford and Emmett ambulance services didn’t want LifeCare to come in because they saw the new service as a threat.

“Larry made contact with me because we were having problems with the ambulance services that were then providing care in Battle Creek,” says Wayne Wiley, who was Assistant City Manager and would go on to become City Manager. “At that time we had three or four different services and none of them were doing a very professional job. He talked to me and I said I was willing to participate.”

Competition at that time was “keen,” Wiley says.

“When we started our new service, providing a higher level of care, the other ambulance services were skeptical and they tried to compete harder. It was almost a free for all.”

Often the closest ambulance would respond to a call for service, but this didn’t address the system issues, Wiley says.

“The conventional thinking was that a quicker response would somehow provide better outcomes, but that was not what the data was showing us,” Wiley says.

LifeCare entered into a contract with the city to provide minimum response times and the care needed.

“Larry saw the need to up the ante and he coordinated with the fire department. He wanted to make sure we had coverage so everybody knew what their job was. The fire department would arrive on the scene and provide basic services and then the ambulance would show up and provide a higher piece of care.” 

But, this was a process that was not without its share of challenges, beginning with securing the necessary financing to form LifeCare and put in place all of the parts of the organization to make it a successful venture.

Larry Anderson learned about ambulance services while in the military

Anderson and the others involved, who had no experience with ambulance services, in the LifeCare initiative would spend another three years doing everything that was required to become an advanced life support service. He wrote a $740,000 grant to the W.K. Foundation which included provisions for an EMS system, a Medical Control system, and a division of that.

The lack of capital early on to get started was one of the major challenges, Anderson says.

“We got a community loan for $50,000 from Comerica Bank and five almost rusted-out ambulances from a business that was going bankrupt. We used those ambulances as collateral,” Anderson says. “We started as a nonprofit service and we were independent of the hospitals, which came through with loans for us so we could upgrade the equipment.

“The most important thing was that as a nonprofit ambulance service we had to have a board of directors and we became the first one in the state that was not governmental or run by the medics themselves.”

This, he says, removed a focus on what was not beneficial to patients or the community.

Wiley says Anderson, who served as president of LifeCare’s board, rolled out an emergency medical service system that provided for the national minimum response times for certain kinds of care. 

“You had to have the first responder on the scene in so many minutes and you needed to have transport available in so many minutes otherwise you have high mortality rate,” Wiley says. “(Larry) brought in a lot of statistics that opened a lot of people’s eyes to what it would look like to be able to provide medical care with an ambulance. The EMT’s were able to provide drugs, talk to emergency room personnel, and provide care above basic first aid.

“It Improved the outcomes of patients with strokes, heart attacks, and trauma. Would we have eventually gotten there? Most likely. But I don’t know when we would have gotten there.”

LifeCare is credited with bringing advanced life support to many areas in Southwest Michigan that previously did not have access to paramedic level care. In almost every area that LifeCare has expanded into to, ALS care was provided for the first time, according to the Emergent Health Partners website.

LiefCare merged with Emergent in 2018.

Throughout the 1990’s and well into the 2000’s, LifeCare entered into partnerships and expanded its service area to include communities in Branch and St. Joseph counties.

“When LifeCare started they were pretty much a Battle Creek operation and grew. Then they began service in a number of surrounding areas and now they’re all over the state,” Wiley says. 

LifeCare Ambulance was the second ambulance service that Anderson played a crucial role in creating. He also was instrumental in the formation of Huron Valley Ambulance while serving as the vice president for St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. 

Today, Huron Valley Ambulance is one of six ambulance services owned and operated by Emergent, says Lisa Kiesel, spokesperson for Emergent. She says the merger with LifeCare made sense because of synergies that both companies had in terms of values and goals and the way they operated. The merger enabled LifeCare to take advantage of economies of scale that were available because of Emergent’s size.

Even though each of the six ambulance services is locally operated they are able to call on each other should additional ambulances and personnel become necessary. Kiesel says examples of this are game days at the University of Michigan and President Trump’s visit that happened on Wednesday in Battle Creek.

“Larry was very instrumental with the startup way back when so there was already a connection between HVA and LifeCare ambulance,” Kiesel says.

Anderson, now 78, would not be there for much of the expansion and merger activity involving LifeCare having made the decision to leave Leila in 1990 after the merger of the two hospitals. He started a consulting business focused on emergency medical services that took him throughout the United States and other countries, including Indonesia. He also was one of 50 site reviewers with the newly formed Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and made on-site visits to ambulance services throughout the United States seeking accreditation.

In 2000 Anderson was lured back to LifeCare to mentor the organization’s new general manager at the request of board members. After six months, he was asked to stay on as the CEO.

Like many public services, including water, sewer and snow removal, Wiley says people don’t think much about their ambulance service until they need it.

“They just assume that it’s there. Having these things in place is very important,” he says. “Even after he left Leila, Larry maintained a board presence, and then he was a consultant and provided his ideas to other communities and ambulances services. He was out on the national scene helping others.”

Anderson finally decided to retire in November 2006 and was diagnosed one month later with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a medical issue that requires him to use an oxygen tank.

“The good part is I was diagnosed 14 years ago and I’m still here,” he says with a smile.

When asked why he and his family decided to stay in Battle Creek after he left Leila, he points to a window in his living room with a view of Emerald Lake and says that view is among the reasons why he stayed. 

“I lived in Ann Arbor for 13 years and as great as Ann Arbor is, I spent a huge amount of time trying to find parking spaces and spent a lot of time in traffic jams,” Anderson says. “I’ve been in one or two traffic jams in Battle Creek.

“It’s a nice community. If we could just get everyone in Battle Creek to live somewhere else for awhile, I think they would be much less critical of Battle Creek.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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