NC county considers Plan B if ambulance service doesn't recover
The nonprofit agency was previously handling convalescent calls to transport patients between medical and long-term care facilities or for routine medical transport services
The Mountaineer, Waynesville, N.C.
HAYWOOD COUNTY, NC — In the event the Rescue Squad doesn’t emerge with a functioning model to continue services soon, the Haywood County commissioners will have a decision to make.
The nonprofit agency was previously handling convalescent calls to transport patients between medical and long-term care facilities or for routine medical transport services. It also served as a backup 911 responder in the event the county ambulances were unavailable.
Since January when the organization was unable to meet payroll, those calls have been absorbed by the county emergency medical service. Records show the county picked up 129 calls that would have otherwise been handled by the Rescue Squad in March, more than twice the number handled in February. Many speculate that’s about to change, however, once summer residents return to the mountains and the tourism season takes off.
“I’d love to say if we put on another ambulance and hire four people, we could absorb what happened, but we just don’t know the numbers,” said Greg Shuping, who oversees the county’s emergency management department. “The truth is in the numbers, and nobody is there who knows the numbers. They all got fired or quit. It wasn’t as simple as walking over and having a meeting to pass the torch.”
Shuping fully expects that after Easter, the number of calls will rise astronomically.
“Covering those 129 calls didn’t come easy for us in a system that thrives on being available for your family when there’s an emergency. That’s been our focus forever,” Shuping said. “On a temporary basis we’ve absorbed 10-12 percent more calls, but we won’t be able to do that as the call numbers rise. We’re looking forward to the day when the Rescue Squad can get back on its feet.”
Shuping said the protocols haven’t changed when it comes to dispatching the Rescue Squad on backup emergency calls, but said more often than not, the squad does not respond.
That could mean a county ambulance must come from a longer distance to cover it, but the average response time to calls hasn’t dropped to date, Shuping said.
County Manager Bryant Moorehead, who is in the midst of pulling together numbers for the 2019-20 fiscal year, said there is still time for the county to budget funds to to make provisions to cover the convalescent and emergency backup calls the Rescue Squad handles.
Nothing has been taken to the board of commissioners so far.
“We’ve talked several times and knew they need a little bit of seed money to help with cash flow since Medicare or Medicaid runs 60-90 days behind,” Moorehead said. “But that money was to be a loan, and I said we needed a business model with a solid plan going forward.”
Moorehead said the loan amount being considered was $75,000.
“Everyone I talked to is committed to getting it going, and that goes a long way,” he said. “We had kicked around $75,000, but I wouldn’t take anything to the board that isn’t a legitimate business model. ... If the Rescue Squad isn’t available, we would have to organize for all those functions, though we don’t know how that system would look.”
For instance, Mountain Projects, which already provides a transit service in the county, was asked to take a look at expanding into convalescent transport duties.
But a major component that was customarily addressed by the Rescue Squad was serving as a backup if there is a 911 backlog, as well as responding to search and rescue calls.
“If the Rescue Squad is not viable, we’ll have to organize for all those functions,” he said.
Shuping said the search and rescue functions currently within the Rescue Squad are technically under the jurisdiction of the Haywood County Sheriff.
“The sheriff is responsible for searching for missing people, whether it is in the wilderness or a runaway child,” Shuping said. “We can’t do without it in this county. I would hope there would be a plan of some sort for the county or sheriff to take that over. But I’m an optimistic person and want the Rescue Squad to survive. I hope whatever they are doing down there that they’re able to get their feet back under them and become what they need to be because we miss them.”
Sheriff Greg Christopher said his command team has worked on a plan to keep the current search and rescue team volunteers, as well as the fire department staff, involved in the event something happens to the Rescue Squad.
“Those people are our heroes,” he said of the SAR and fire department volunteers who help out on wilderness, whitewater and other rescue efforts. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
Patsy Davis, director of Mountain Projects, said when she was asked to provide an option to handle convalescent transport, her board was fine with it and she proceeded to gather data on costs and what it would take to operate such a system.
Mountain Projects currently provides transit services for ambulatory clients who need to visit medical offices.
“We’re here to fill the gap if we can be of assistance,” Davis said. “The county let me know the Rescue Squad was interested, so I put the information in a file and told them, ‘if you need me, call me.’ Until then, it’s tabled.”
Davis said one of her requirements was that she would only start with all new equipment.
“I didn’t want to assume responsibility for vehicles I didn’t know anything about,” Davis said. “I wanted new vehicles, electronic gurneys, everything. “It’s pricey to start fresh, but well-worth the investment.”
Davis said she planned to ask the Haywood Healthcare Foundation for funds to cover the equipment costs, and would then put any funds raised above the operation/staffing costs in a capital reserve budget.
“There would be no profit for a long time,” she said, “but there’s potential for this to blend with the transport services we do now. We would increase the skill level, and with time, drivers to cross train.”
Davis said she has a great respect for the Rescue Squad volunteers, noting a number of individuals on her staff are part of the volunteer force.
“I have great respect for the work they do,” she said, “and I’m only here as an as-needed basis.”
©2019 The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C.)