Editorial: New Beaufort County EMS stations must be a priority

Beaufort County is to be commended for its impressive improvements to emergency response times.

All county residents are safer now that ambulances arrive in 8 minutes, 34 seconds on average. That's down from 12 minutes, 50 seconds in 2009, according to county EMS data.

Every minute counts during cardiac arrest and other emergencies and can mean the difference between life and death.

But now is not the time for the county to rest on its laurels. National standards dictate ambulances should arrive within 8 minutes to 90 percent of calls. Last year, Beaufort County EMS fell short of that, arriving within 8 minutes to 68 percent of calls.

So how do we reach the goal?

A closer look at the data by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette revealed that some parts of the county are in need of new EMS posts that, like those already in existence, would be staffed around the clock. This is particularly true in the fast-growing communities of Bluffton and Sun City Hilton Head as well as Burton.

As the county shakes off the last remnants of the Great Recession and the anticipated population boom gets underway, the need for faster ambulance service will become more pressing.

County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville has said the county has a long list of needs -- new EMS stations being just one of them. We need a greater sense of urgency. Fire, police and ambulance service are basic government functions that must top any priority list.

As County Council members mull whether to put a capital projects sales tax proposal before voters, their list must include funding for the additional EMS posts. Other funding possibilities also exist, according to county leaders, that should be considered if the plan for a referendum is abandoned.

That's not to say the county must be the sole bearer of the financial responsibility. Developers who are building scores of new single-family homes should bear part of it too. As they come before County Council and Bluffton Town Council to seek approval for new neighborhoods or to amend existing development agreements, the people's representatives must negotiate for land for new EMS posts.

And we hope that the idea of consolidating EMS and fire service will get a serious look soon. Some local fire chiefs -- retiring Beaufort Fire Chief Sammy Negron among them -- make a compelling case that allowing the local municipalities that already oversee their own fire operations to take over ambulance service as well would lead to greater efficiencies.

While such a consolidation would be politically tricky, it is not impossible. A serious discussion about it is overdue.