Beaufort News

County study did not address reliance on city fire stations, EMS

A recent study of EMS and fire-support services in Beaufort County did not address the county's reliance on fire stations or the cost fire departments absorb to provide emergency medical response.

That disappointed several city of Beaufort officials who had requested the topic be explored in the study, Fire Chief Sammy Negron said.

In the city of Beaufort and the town of Port Royal, each time someone calls 911 for a medical emergency, the city of Beaufort Fire Department responds, along with county EMS. Although it has no legal responsibility to do so, the fire department has long provided those first-responder services at no cost to the county, Negron said.

Emergency medical response takes up a majority of the department's time and budget. For the 2010-11 fiscal year, the city of Beaufort allocated $1,447,338 for first-responder services compared with only $17,028 for fire suppression and $470,376 for prevention and training.

Medical calls make up about 66 percent of emergency calls Beaufort firefighters respond to each year, Negron has said.

During a workshop Tuesday, Negron told Beaufort City Council members that because the department's three fire stations respond to medical calls -- often faster than county EMS units -- he doesn't see an urgency on the county's end to provide the same level of service as the city does.

The recent study, commissioned by the county and conducted by CRA of Alexandria, Va., found that the county's EMS unit in Beaufort on Depot Road and city fire stations were well-located and able to cover their designated response areas.

Negron called the study "protective of the way Beaufort County EMS is doing business."

"I don't think we should give up on our desire to hold the county responsible for what we're doing for them," Negron said during the workshop. "I think they're relying (on those services), they've relied on it for many years, and they rely on it at no cost to them."

William Winn, county public safety director, said the city sent the county a letter several months ago outlining concerns about the cost of providing first-response services. In its response, the county said it would gladly discuss reducing the amount of support the fire department provides, Winn said.

"We sent that letter, and they never responded," he said. "I can't comment on anything else they haven't told me directly."

The county's study found that the EMS system provided "a sound level of service," but said some aspects of service -- for example, response times -- could be improved.

In his presentation to council, Negron offered various suggestions, such as creating an agreement with the county and billing it for first-responder services, working with the county to place EMS employees and response vehicles at fire stations, or only responding to high-priority calls.

Beaufort has expressed concern about the cost of providing medical response for years, city manager Scott Dadson said.

But for now, Beaufort has no immediate plans to change its level of service, Dadson said. He added that the study is an opportunity to discuss improvements and that the city has not presented a list of concerns or recommendations to the county.

"Because we are here with three stations in the city and the town (of Port Royal) and are staffed 24 hours a day, we can provide a level of service that can mean the difference and save someone's life," Negron said. "We have a moral duty to continue serving."