In a surprise action, the Patrick County Board of Supervisors approved hiring career (paid) Emergency Medical Services (EMS)/ firefighting staff at their Nov. 20 meeting.
After the meeting, Steve Allen, emergency services coordinator, said the first staff could be hired by February.
The issue of whether to add career staff to the volunteer system has been discussed for years as a way to help residents, volunteer squads and fire departments.
During the meeting, Rickie Fulcher, of the Peters Creek District, made the motion to adopt a paid ambulance service per guidelines presented earlier.
The motion also was supported by Karl Weiss, of the Blue Ridge District; and Crystal Harris, chairman and of the Smith River District, in the narrow 3-2 vote.
The guidelines included two options. Under the first, the county would hire four Advanced Life Support (ALS) providers and four Basic Life Support (BLS) providers to work every fourth day, at a cost of little more than $412,323 per year.
The second option calls for three each ALS and BLS providers to work every third day at an annual cost of nearly $411,679. The total annual cost for each plan includes supplies, fuel, uniforms, insurance and other incidentals.
Fulcher, who said he came to the meeting prepared to make the motion, said his resolve was strengthened by impassioned pleas from county residents who addressed the board during the public comment period.
Speakers included Anita Prutting, who related a medical emergency at her place of employment.
She said a visitor there suffered a grand mal seizure on Oct. 10, and could have died within 60 seconds from choking on saliva if Prutting had not known how to respond.
The person “was in a constant seizure for 12 minutes,” Prutting said, adding she called 911 multiple times before a rescue squad arrived more than an hour later. It was longer still before the person was en route to a hospital, she said.
The wait time for a rescue squad has increased due to the closing of Pioneer Community Hospital of Patrick, because volunteers must travel greater distances to care providers, lose more time from their jobs, families, etc., according to Prutting and other speakers.
The 90 minutes to two hour wait times for an ambulance are unacceptable, she said.
“We desperately need something here in the county,” Prutting said, and advocated for a paid service to cover the county at all times, “at least one or maybe two, as big as this county is.”
“God bless our volunteers, but by the time they get the call, leave their jobs, get to an ambulance and get there (to the scene), a lot can happen,” Prutting said. “Our county needs paid service, but this is nothing against the volunteers. Our volunteers are killing themselves,” working hard to respond to calls.”
Both Weiss and Roger Hayden, of the Dan River District, said they did not know the EMS issue would be discussed at the meeting. They also noted it was not listed on the agenda.
“I think it should be on the agenda and advertised in the paper so people” could attend the meeting, Hayden said, and encouraged the board not to vote on the issue until that happened.
Prutting noted meetings have been held multiple times in the past, and the supervisors still took no action.
Erica Cipko, a volunteer with Stuart Fire Department with five years experience, also urged the board to act.
“Our citizens are suffering,” Cipko said, and told the supervisors “Your vision and lack of initiative in putting new measures in place is truly disheartening and unacceptable.”
Cipko also relayed several instances of delayed medical care/transport to highlight the suffering of residents and volunteers.
“I state this case not to cast blame on anyone in the volunteer system, but to point out the obvious: that calls are being missed and without more assistance,” EMS providers “simply can’t do what the public has a right to expect,” Cipko said.
“I have it on good authority that Roger Hayden stated that after the election, he would make EMS a priority,” Cipko said. Addressing Hayden directly, she said, “It’s after the election, and this is your last chance to make an actual difference, and to make a point about something helpful other than you bringing internet to Patrick County so many years ago.”
Hayden will go off the board in December, after losing a November reelection bid to Jane Scales Fulk.
Cipko then addressed Lock Boyce, vice chairman, veterinarian and a former rescue squad volunteer.
“Dr. Boyce, whether you’d like to believe it or not, change happens. In the many years that you haven’t responded to an EMS call, things have changed,” Cipko said, and then addressed the board as a whole.
“It has been time for all of you as supervisors to realize the problem at hand. You made a motion months ago to set aside $350,000 and have done absolutely nothing with it. Thank you, but no thank you,” she said, noting there are many issues beyond the board’s control.
“You can’t control the hospital closing,” or that a flooring plant will cease operations at the end of the year, Cipko said, and admonished the board they also “don’t have anything to do with the caboose in town.”
However, “what you can control is the citizens’ wellbeing by putting in place an EMS system that will not only assist your volunteers, but potentially save your constituents’ lives,” Cipko said.
Chelsea Spangler, a Jeb Stuart Volunteer Rescue Squad volunteer, provided an update on the squad’s efforts use soft billing proceeds to add part-time career positions. She said it was difficult to fill the part-time posts, and also noted the three-hour turnaround time when responding to calls is taking a heavy toll on volunteers.
Spangler said she can’t afford to miss three hours from work to respond.
“We’re struggling,” she said, and urged supervisors to “try to help us out and make sure” to put residents first.
Lock Boyce, of the Mayo River District and Hayden voted against the measure.
Boyce said career crews will “run off volunteers” and also bankrupt the county because there is not enough money to pay what he said is more than $525,000 for “two guys in an ambulance.” He also favors a stipend program.
“I beg you to postpone any vote” on the issue, Boyce said.
Hayden, who also favors a stipend program, urged the board not to vote on the matter until the December meeting, when squad members from his district could attend and give input.