County should address ambulance service issue

May 17, 2009 

Common sense and population growth suggest that the number of ambulances needed to serve Beaufort County today should far exceed what was deemed adequate in 2000.

And common sense suggests that officials should not be afraid to evaluate whether it would be more efficient and effective to turn over emergency medical duties to the Bluffton Township Fire District, a method of service delivery that has worked elsewhere.

In 2000, two ambulances served mainland southern Beaufort County. Today, the number is three. But the total number of calls for the ambulance stationed in Bluffton and the one stationed near Sun City Hilton Head has more than doubled since 2000, from 2,300 calls in 2000 to 5,356 in 2008. The ambulance stationed on S.C. 170 near Callawassie Island has been in service only since 2006.

This issue is not new and is long overdue for review.

In May 2001, officials from the county's six fire districts began studying whether they should consolidate the fire districts and county EMS into one countywide operation. In 2002, Bluffton fire district officials asked the county to allow it to operate another ambulance in the township, but the county said no, in part because a recommendation on consolidation still was outstanding.

Now we learn that the Bluffton fire district plans a study in 2012 that would look at taking on the county's EMS responsibilities. County officials should do better than that. Waiting three years for an answer on a question as vital as this to public health and safety simply isn't good enough.

Let's get an independent, comprehensive review. We say independent because it's nearly impossible to get information on the number and types of calls for service. Instead, the EMS department compiles data, precluding an objective review.

County EMS director Rusty Hollingsworth says processing data that would show response times is time-consuming. County officials also cite state privacy regulations when asked about the types of calls ambulances are responding to.

This newspaper looked at ambulance calls in southern Beaufort County on Feb. 26. County ambulances responded to five calls in a period of 1 hour and 40 minutes. For three of the calls, according to information provided by Hollingsworth, the response time was longer than 10 minutes. (The countywide average is 7 minutes, according to Hollingsworth.)

One of those calls was for a patient in Sheridan Park on U.S. 278 in Bluffton, who waited more than 16 minutes for an ambulance. The ambulance that responded is based in Beaufort, about 27 miles away.

Hollingsworth said he didn't know why an ambulance based in Beaufort responded to the call or where it was when dispatched to Sheridan Park. He also couldn't say why the ambulance stationed on Bluffton's Bridge Street was unaccounted for in the list of calls for 12 hours that day.

This was described as a very busy day. But what about the other 364 days of the year? How often does it take longer than the county average of seven minutes for an ambulance to respond? Are any areas of the county worse than the rest?

Here again are key questions that deserve answers:

• Are there enough ambulances in southern Beaufort County to serve its growing population?

• Does the county have an appropriate plan for ambulance service in all areas of the county?

• Is the Hilton Head Island model -- firefighters trained as paramedics -- the appropriate model to follow?

• Should the county aim for a five-minute response time -- the goal of Hilton Head's Fire and Rescue Division -- what would it take to get there and what would it cost?

Jay Fitch, founder of Fitch & Associates, a Missouri-based EMS and public safety consulting firm, says consultants would have to compare the existing EMS operation to a set of national benchmarks, analyze population density and call volume, and review whether the change would make sense financially.

Let's get to it. Elected County Council members should not sit back and wait for county administrator Gary Kubic to bring the issue to them. The ball is in their court to make sure critical county services are delivered in the best way possible.

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