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Funding for new S.C. county ambulance dropped over reserve issue

County administrator said Lexington County EMS could not guarantee the new ambulance would stay in the Chapin area.


Five Lexington County EMS vehicles at the Ball Park Road vehicle depot on Wednesday, January 17, 2024.

Joshua Boucher/TNS

By Bristow Marchant
The State

LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. — Lexington County will not be getting a new ambulance in the state budget after all.

Plans to have the state pay for an additional ambulance to serve the Chapin area were dropped by the Legislature because Lexington County EMS couldn’t reserve an ambulance to only serve the area specified in the budget language.

[PREVIOUSLY: S.C. town residents look forward to additional ambulance]

“We never refused the money,” said Lexington County Administrator Lynn Sturkie. But because Lexington County uses a dynamic deployment system that positions ambulances around the county in response to call volume, Sturkie said the county couldn’t guarantee a new ambulance would stay in Chapin.

“We’re always shifting ambulances,” the administrator said. “We can’t just put an ambulance within a specific section or a specific community. We could take the ambulance and add to the system and provide greater coverage, but it would be for the system countywide.”

State Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R- Newberry, had included $365,000 in the state’s 2024-25 budget for the purchase of a fully-equipped ambulance specifically for the Chapin area.

“They would love to have the money,” Cromer said of the county. “But in the Senate, we’ve got guidelines in the finance committee. It has to be on a line item and used specifically for that line item or it will be removed and used for other state services, and that’s what the Senate did.”

Residents in newer neighborhoods outside Chapin, where peninsulas that snake down like long fingers into the waters of Lake Murray have bloomed with housing developments, have complained about long wait times when they call for emergency responders. Some say they’ve waited more than an hour for an ambulance after calling 911.

Marty Koblish has experienced those waits firsthand. Last year, her husband, Cam, waited more than an hour and a half after she took him to the Chapin Urgent Care for an irregular heartbeat. In late April, Marty experienced her own health scare when the retired nurse woke up in the couple’s Timberlake home with an irregular heartbeat of her own. She calmly called for an ambulance after 1 a.m. and waited about 35 minutes for help to arrive.

“When they got here it was two EMTs, and they said, ‘We don’t have a paramedic, so can’t start an IV,’ and I said, ‘That’s fine, just get me on the gurney,’” Koblish said.

Koblish has no complaints about the treatment she received from the first responders — she said the ambulance even stopped to pick up a paramedic on the way to the hospital — but she continues to be concerned about the length of time she has had to wait for an ambulance to arrive.

“Thank God I wasn’t having a heart attack,” she said. “In 35 minutes, I could have been dead.”

Lexington County officials said they tried to work up an alternative proposal, such as purchasing a quick response vehicle that would be driven by a paramedic and include life-saving medical equipment. Such a vehicle might be more affordable for the money included in the line item, said County Councilwoman Charli Wessinger, who represents Chapin.

“A QRV that is fully equipped and fitted with live-saving equipment would run us around $400,000,” said Wessinger. The Senate money would “get us almost there.”

But a quick response vehicle also wouldn’t have met the language included in the line item, so the money couldn’t be used for that either.

“I just wish we’d had better collaboration to them putting that line item in the budget,” Wessinger said.

County officials also say the amount of money included in the budget would have fallen short of what it would take to fully staff and equip a new ambulance.

“An ambulance could cost about $380,000, but it would cost us $100,000 to equip it with lights, sirens and so forth,” Sturkie said. “Plus, it takes 10 personnel to run one ambulance for 24 hours, so that’s about $825,000 of reoccurring costs. We’re grateful for the one-time capital, but we would still have reoccurring costs to put that ambulance on the road.”

The senator said he had staff research the cost of an ambulance and found a “bare bones” vehicle could be purchased for around $350,000, then he added some additional funding to equip the ambulance. But he was told by the county “That’s not quite enough to take care of it,” Cromer said.

Cromer said he would try again to insert money for an ambulance in next year’s budget, but he said Lexington County will have to be prepared to run any vehicle the state purchases. “We can’t fund personnel,” Cromer said. “That has to be done by the county.”

Improvements in progress
While county officials are hopeful for more funding next year, they tout improvements to the county’s EMS that are moving forward regardless. With the latest recruiting class joining the service, Lexington County EMS is down to five vacancies, Sturkie said, from 20 earlier this year. Four new ambulances also launched on the county’s roads last month.

Wessinger said the average response time for the high-acuity calls in the Chapin area in March was eight minutes, and 19 seconds. Of all 85 calls from the Chapin area that month, the average response time was 15 minutes.

Still, other outlying areas such as Batesburg-Leesville and Swansea put a greater strain on county resources with more than 200 calls each in the same time period.

“Chapin makes up around 3% of the total call volume in the county, which is pretty low,” Wessinger said.

Jason Resnick is a former EMT and now a candidate for Lexington County Council from the Chapin area. He thinks the county still could have found a way to accept the ambulance even with the wording of the budget line item.

“If the asset is supposed to be in the Irmo - Chapin region, that should free up an asset you’re bringing into the Irmo - Chapin region,” Resnick said. “The response times are struggling around the entire county. Certainly some areas are worse than Chapin. So put this asset in Chapin and free up vehicles that would otherwise be stationed for Chapin to reduce their response times. The majority of the time just needs to be spent in the Chapin area. But turning down a free ambulance is preposterous.

“At the end of the day, the county can point the finger at whoever they want or whatever miscommunication,” Resnick said. “There was a deal on the table, and the county blew the deal.”

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