Volunteer EMS leaders critique plan to deploy surge ambulances
The surge units will be available to provide backup when regular ambulances operated by volunteer fire and EMS companies are on calls and can’t respond
By Allan Vought
HARFORD COUNTY, Md. — Leaders of Harford County’s volunteer fire and EMS services got their first look at the county government’s plan to deploy its new backup — or surge – ambulances Tuesday night.
The majority didn’t like what they saw.
Members of the new EMS Standards Board presented the surge ambulance plan, as well as some of their other long-range planning initiatives, during a two-and-a-half-hour meeting held in the situation room at the Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.
Approximately 40 people who are active in leadership of the Harford Volunteer Fire & EMS Association were in attendance, as was county Director of Emergency Services Edward Hopkins and other county representatives.
The surge units will be available to provide backup when regular ambulances operated by local volunteer fire and EMS companies are out on calls and can’t respond in a timely manner, according to county officials.
Chairman John Donohue said the five-member standards board, apppointed earlier this year by County Executive Barry Glassman, looked at several alternatives, dispatching statistics and other variables before deciding to recommend that the first of two surge ambulances be based on the west side of the county around Fallston.
The board also recommends the surge ambulance be “dual dispatched” simultaneously with a regular ambulance, he said.
The recommendations, Donohue explained, are based on recent dispatch statistics showing the highest number of delayed responses from ambulances are along the Route 152 corridor and the Norrisville area, served by the Fallston Volunteer Fire & Ambulance Company and Norrisville Volunteer Fire Company, respectively.
Some 10.4 percent of calls in the Fallston VFC service area did not have an ambulance in service within the county standard of five minutes, Donohue said, citing dispatch statistics. Norrisville was unable to get ambulance and crew out in five minutes 6.78 percent of the time during the same period surveyed, he said. Only one other company, Darlington, was above 3 percent at 3.3.
“The western side of the county is where the greatest need for more coverage exists,” he said.
Several people in the audience said that problem was already being addressed by adding an additional paid EMS crew at the Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company Station, since that company’s overlap territory includes Fallston and Norrisville.
Others challenged the veracity of the call statistics, saying the wrong information was used by the board to make its recommendations. Donohue said they would check the numbers again, as well as looking at response times since the addition of the new Jarrettsville crew.
He was also challenged on how dual dispatching wouldn’t just result on two units going to the same call, answering that as soon as a regular ambulance reported having a driver within the 5-minute window, it would get the call, not the surge unit, which he reiterated over and over would not be “competing” with the regular unit for the call.
Despite the pointed and sometimes rough questioning, the Fire & EMS Association hasn’t taken an official stance on what was presented, a spokesperson said Wednesday.
“Last night was the first time the Association had seen the proposal so there hasn't yet been time to discuss or evaluate its content,” spokesman Rich Gardiner said by email.
The county purchased two ambulances this year at a cost of $450,000 to be used as backup for the association members’ ambulances and their crews, as well as other crews employed by the county Fire & EMS Foundation. The latter was set up by the association to augment the existing EMS crews, some paid and some volunteer, attached to the 11 fire and/or ambulance companies.
The first of the two surge ambulances is scheduled to go in service Jan. 1 and will be available 24/7, according to county government. Following a six-month trial period with the first unit, the second surge unit will be deployed.
Legislation is pending before the County Council to set fees that will be charged to patients insurance companies when a surge unit is used. The fees would mirror prevailing Medicare rates.
The county is also in the process of hiring the eight-member crew for the first ambulance, according to the county administration.
Donohue said the surge ambulances are coming in response to concerns from County Executive Barry Glassman that the current EMS system isn’t meeting the needs of county residents.
He also said the surge units “will not leave Harford County,” as per the county executive’s directions to the board, to answer mutual aid calls in neighboring jurisdictions.
Several in the audience said response times on the county’s west side have been compromised in the past by their units being dispatched to Baltimore County to handle mutual aid calls.
“I think it’s important to remember the bigger picture that the county executive has laid out in his state of the county address,” county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said. “He is taking steps to address the fact that the demand for service will continue to increase at the same time the ability to recruit volunteers is declining for several reasons, not the least of which is the additional hours required for EMS certification.”
“The county executive believes that it is his reponsibility to ensure our EMS system is sustainable and meets future needs,” said Mumby, who attended Tuesday’s meeting. “He is taking an incremental approach. The addition of two fully staffed ambulances to serve the citizens of this county when they call out in an emergency is the beginning of his long-term plan to support and strengthen EMS services.”
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