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Increased EMS response times have county looking for answers

By Walter Geiger At it’s meeting Jan. 19 the Lamar County commission authorized county administrator Sean Townsend to negotiate with Community Ambulance regarding the current shortage of EMTs and drastically increased response times on EMS calls in the county. Those close to the situation report Community has lost a large number of personnel over the last six months. Many left for other companies for higher pay and better benefits. The commission asked Townsend to look into the county possibly augmenting the pay of EMTs to address the shortage of paramedics. Attorney Scott Mayfield told the commissioners that, though the county pays no subsidy, the county does have a contract with Community so any changes would have to be made in an amendment. ‘There is a contract but they are not abiding by it,’ Mayfield alleged. Sheriff Brad White reported his dispatchers have had instances where they had five calls waiting for an ambulance to arrive. ‘Our dispatchers are repeatedly having to call surrounding counties, trying to get mutual aid through other EMS providers to cover local calls,’ the sheriff said. Barnesville’s fire department does not answer medical calls so paid staff and volunteers from the county fire department are left covering the entire area when no ambulance is available. ‘I know this, it is running the volunteer firefighters ragged,’ one source close to the issue who requested anonymity said. Another said the shortages began in earnest last October and there are rarely two ambulances dedicated to Lamar County on duty overnight as the contract calls for. One EMS unit is often staged at the former Rock Ranch to handle calls in Lamar and Upson counties. Additionally, EMS crews often prioritize non-emergency transports which can cause issues when an emergency does develop, first responders said. County fire chief Douglas Matthews reported there are normally two ambulances on duty in the county during the day. ‘When those two are on calls, we have to request another ambulance from somewhere. Some of the issues Community is having are due to staffing problems. On some days they are only able to staff one ambulance and that does increase the response times and the wait times for the ambulance. That is where our fire engines are responding to help and treat people,’ Matthews said. The shortage of EMTs is not limited to Lamar. ‘They pay scale was increased by Community and they are looking for employees. There is a shortage of paramedics all over,’ Matthews added. Amy Abel, director of communications for Community, reported there has been a nationwide EMS staffing crisis for the past decade and it has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. ’EMS providers like Community Ambulance, continue to respond to the same kinds of emergencies they always have. The demand placed on EMS is now greater than ever with the added strain of the number of COVID-19 patients we are transporting, not to mention the risk of infection from the virus,’ Abel said. There is also added physical and mental strain on paramedics as they work to respond rapidly while maintaining high clinical standards in a mobile environment. ‘Crews must factor in time for important infection control measures like donning, doffing and disposing of PPE appropriately and disinfecting trucks and equipment between calls,’ Abel continued. Community provides EMS services for Lamar and Upson counties without financial subsidy from local government, Abel said. The company boosted pay significantly effective Dec. 10, 2020 and continues to recruit and attempt to retain EMS professionals, she added. That is welcome news for the sheriff’s department and its dispatchers. ’I’m glad the county is is working with Community to resolve its manpower issues and hold them to their contractual obligations,’ sheriff White concluded.

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