Belhaven EMS shift roils waters|Decision to prematurely end volunteer service sparks public anger

Published 8:15 am Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Staff Writer

The latest spark of debate in Belhaven: the Town Council’s recent decision to decommission the town’s volunteer EMS services, now that it has a paid, 24-hour service. But the town’s mayor said criticism of the move is based on politics, a charge his opponent denied.
“We’ve got quicker service (and) increased life-saving capacity, all with no tax increase or utility bill increase, and I think that’s incredible,” said Mayor Adam O’Neal. “And we aren’t able to maintain a volunteer staff as well as a paid staff, and I’m not aware of any towns that do.”
But other folks aren’t so sold on the idea of shutting down the EMS side of the Belhaven Fire and Rescue Department, which continues to provided fire fighting and other services.
“I haven’t been given a reason why,” said Derrick Myers, the department’s chief. “I would like to know why.”
The initial plan was that following the July 1 switch to the paid service the volunteer service would act as a backup for the paid service. At first the arrangement was to last six months, but then officials decided it would run 90 days, then be up for review, said Myers. Then, he said, the town council decided to ax the free service all together.
While the paid EMS service is supervised by a board representing, among others, the county and Belhaven governments, the decision to end the volunteer service was strictly a town matter, said John Pack, the county’s emergency services coordinator
“The city took action,” Pack said. “It’s their EMS, not the county’s.”
Instead, the paid EMS service, which serves Belhaven, Pantego and nearby unincorporated areas, relies on mutual aid agreements with surrounding EMS services, which is standard in the county.
Depending on where a call comes from, mutual aid could come from services in Pinetown, Bath or Pamlico Beach, Pack said.
Myers said that between July 1 and the service’s elimination at the most recent Town Council meeting, the volunteer service could work well with the paid service. He also said the volunteer service had provided two extra ambulances that could arrive on scene quickly in case of a major crash.
The ambulances are now decommissioned and at the town garage.
O’Neal said the move led to savings for the town.
“We don’t have any certifications to keep up anymore, the trucks are decommissioned,” he said.
O’Neal argued that the town had used mutual aid as the backup for the volunteer service, so the paid service, even without the volunteers as backup, is a step up for Belhaven.
But he said the criticism he has received for the move is based on political malice, not genuine concern.
“All it is, is politics, and my opponent in the upcoming mayoral election has said that our town does not need 24/7 EMS service,” O’Neal said. “Now let’s tell that to a citizen that’s in a diabetic coma.”
O’Neal is running against Dr. Charles O. Boyette, the former longtime mayor whom O’Neal unseated to take the mantle of Mayor of Belhaven.
Boyette said he has steered clear.
“Everyone would like to have someone to blame for everything that happens when they make poor decisions,” Boyette said.” In this particular instance, I don’t need a beating because I haven’t been involved.”
Both men have been complimentary of the services the volunteer squad rendered to the town.
The new, paid EMS service was instituted as part of a countywide initiative to improve EMS coverage. Other full-time EMS districts include Chocowinity and Broad Creek.
In other parts of the new EMS district, the services is being paid for, in part, with an extra tax of 5 cents per $100 of property value, the maximum the law allows.
The rest of the cost for the unincorporated areas is being subsidized by the county. Belhaven has opted to pay its portion of the cost through its general fund, and Pantego has opted for a similar arrangement.