Volunteers say they can abide by new EMS agreement

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comDecember 6, 2013 

— Volunteer units aren’t exactly praising York County Council’s final emergency response system decision. But they’re not shutting their doors either.

Council voted 5-2 last week to approve emergency response contracts with paid provider Piedmont Medical Center and volunteer units, River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS and Fort Mill Rescue. It’s been almost two years in discussion and a year in negotiation.

Some issues that arose during that time had volunteers wondering if they would be allowed to continue running calls. Some had them exploring legal action. An online petition supporting volunteers gathered more than 950 signatures.

The end result is one volunteers say they can live with, for now.

The good

Almost two years ago, the state mandated York County end dual dispatch, or multiple units responding to every call. Last week’s decision ended dual dispatch.

Chairman Britt Blackwell said more work could be done, but for now the agreement provides patient choice of which hospital to use.

Despite two of the three council members who ironed out the agreement in committee ultimately voting against it, Blackwell and other council members said the main priority was met.

“If they can’t agree with what they came up with, it leaves it to the council to come up with a solution,” Blackwell said. “And this solution does eliminate dual dispatch.”

From the volunteer perspective, the agreement doesn’t appear to have anything in it that will shut down units or prompt legal action.

Both were discussed throughout the negotiation process as issues arose, such as whose doctors would provide medical control and placement of ambulances.

“We’re going to continue to do the same thing we’re doing,” said Dick Mann, president of River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS.

Mann said volunteers are still sorting through the contract and new information could create “a totally different reaction.”

But he also said during the past couple of months, paid and volunteer units have been working with a better set of boundaries that “could be a little bit of an improvement.”

“I think it’s going to work out for the best,” he said.

Brian Murphy, an attorney and member of Fort Mill Rescue, said the full contract still needs to be evaluated but he’s “encouraged” by the decision.

“They did address the major concerns that we had that were truly harmful,” Murphy said.

The bad

Complaints following the agreement weren’t centered on what the decision did, but what it failed to do.

“It looks to us like essentially what they did was kick the can down the road and do absolutely nothing,” Mann said.

Councilmen Joe Cox and Bruce Henderson both voted against the plan.

Cox said he was “thoroughly upset” with the agreement and called the nearly two-year process “ridiculous,” if it only ends dual dispatch.

“Dual dispatch could’ve ended on an email,” he said.

Cox said he is concerned response times in rural areas like the ones he serves in western York County weren’t improved.

“We didn’t do anything,” he said. “Not for the betterment of response times to get that ambulance to you quicker.”

Henderson said gains were made “to a minimum” and the county should set response times, “promote and seek” other EMS providers to join what’s already here and hold providers more accountable.

“We held no feet to the fire – none – by signing this,” he said.

Response times “decide whether someone has the chance to recover,” Henderson said, and he argued they should have been improved. Standards were proposed during negotiation. They just didn’t make the final agreement.

“A bunch of us have wasted two years of our lives trying to come up with something that will work, and we’re right back where we were two years ago,” Mann said.

The unknown

Blackwell and other Council members said the decision last week is a step. More work still can be done on issues like response times, he said.

Mann said his “greatest fear” is some months from now, the issues they’d hoped to have resolved by now will resurface and jump start another long, difficult negotiation.

But in the meantime, the groups that are operating will continue mostly as they have, but without dual dispatch.

“I believe the most productive talks that we’ll have will be with the EMS providers themselves to create a system that’s the most productive it can be,” Murphy said. “And we will do that.”

John Marks •  803-831-8166

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