WILLMAR -The familiar blue and white rigs of the Willmar Ambulance Service recently gained a new look that comes with an even bigger change in the Carris Health emergency medical services department.

Going forward, the local ambulance service, previously a department of Rice Memorial Hospital, is becoming part of a newly created regional entity known as CentraCare Emergency Medical Services. The change takes effect Jan. 1 and will bring together the EMS services in Long Prairie, Monticello, Paynesville, Redwood Falls and Willmar under a single CentraCare umbrella.

"We're doing that for efficiencies, standards of care, training and equipment," said Brad Hanson, operations director of the Willmar Ambulance Service. "Overall it's an EMS structure that fits what's going on in the EMS world."

The new entity has a combined staff of 140 and collectively handles about 12,000 calls a year.

The first truck in the Willmar ambulance fleet to sport the new all-white look with the CentraCare logo made its debut three weeks ago. The switchover for the entire Willmar fleet was completed this past month and is now in progress for all of the Paynesville ambulances, Hanson said.

The change is one of many structural changes underway in local health care delivery with the merger of Affiliated Community Medical Centers and Rice Memorial Hospital into Carris Health, a new nonprofit subsidiary of CentraCare Health. In the two years since the merger became official, the entities have implemented a shared medical record system, signed an agreement with Swift County-Benson Hospital, launched the construction of a new hospital and clinic campus in Redwood Falls and more.

To underscore the new Carris Health identity, rebranding has been taking place this year with the roll-out of a new logo, new marketing materials and new signs.

On the surface, the restructuring of the ambulance service won't be immediately visible to patients or families. "It's the same people, even though the word 'Willmar' is not on our ambulances anymore," Hanson said. "We are still part of this hospital as a care team."

The real changes go deeper and should ultimately help improve patient care as well as save money, he said. With less duplication at the administrative level, overhead costs can be reduced. Group purchasing also will help save money on equipment and supplies, Hanson said. "The efficiencies are huge."

More than this, the new joint entity will help standardize staff training and protocols of care and provide more support to the smaller ambulance services, Hanson said.

"Now we have the ability across the system to have the same level of care," he said.

It also will help set the stage for the introduction of new emergency medical capabilities in the field, such as a telemedicine service currently being used by the ambulance service in Paynesville for patients suspected of having a stroke.

A manager for the ambulance service in Willmar will be added at a future point, while Hanson will transition into a role with a regional and systemwide focus.

"We're working together to meld things. It's been a good process," Hanson said. "We want to maintain the service we have and make it even better."