FILLING THE GAPS: Holes in paramedic service addressed with $500,000 grant

Published 6:58 pm Saturday, July 11, 2015

JOHN FLEMMING QUICK RESPONSE: This mockup of a paramedic Quick Response Vehicle an option for increased paramedic-level service in Beaufort County, as aided through a grant from Vidant Health Foundation.

QUICK RESPONSE: This mockup of a paramedic Quick Response Vehicle an option for increased paramedic-level service in Beaufort County, as aided through a grant from Vidant Health Foundation.


Over the past year, EMS squad after EMS squad has transitioned to paramedic status, in a bid to provide a higher level of pre-hospital care to residents of Beaufort County. Now, Vidant Health Foundation is stepping in to fill the gaps.

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, on Tuesday, voted 6-1 to accept a $500,000 grant from the Foundation specifically to improve EMS operations in the county. For EMS Director John Flemming, that’s money that will be spent making sure all residents get equal coverage.

“One of the concerns that I’ve seen and the (county-hired) consultant has seen is the lack of paramedic coverage in the northeastern region of the county,” Flemming said. “That leaves a large section of the county, a very rural section, without paramedic coverage. … $500,000 will not ensure that we are completely covered in paramedic coverage, but it will go a long way in covering up the holes.”

Coverage gaps have been identified in the Bath/Pinetown areas, with Bath operating at a basic EMS level, as well as in Blounts Creek. In Bath and Pinetown, EMS relies on volunteers, most of who have fulltime jobs, which can put a damper on how often they can respond to medical emergencies during certain hours of the day, Flemming said.

“With volunteers — and this is not a hit against the volunteer system; they are a great asset to EMS — but volunteers are just that: when they can respond, they do,” Flemming said.

What that means for EMS response is the potential for a domino effect in service: if Bath EMTs aren’t available for a call, Broad Creek paramedics will likely answer; if there’s now a call in the Broad Creek service area, a Washington squad would have to answer; a call in Washington then might have to be answered by Chocowinity paramedics.

“There could be a situation where all are engaged and we have to call an adjacent county to come in,” Flemming said.

For Blounts Creek, the issue is location: the paramedic squads of Aurora and Chocowinity are outside of the eight-minute response goal set by the State Office of EMS.

“Just the travel time alone from either Chocowinity or Aurora, it’s very difficult to make that goal because we’re looking at the travel time, at the distance,” Flemming said.

The $500,000 from Vidant Health Foundation will allow county EMS some options, Flemming said. One option would be a full-time paramedic with a Quick Response Vehicle (QRV) stationed on the south side of the Pamlico River, and a full paramedic ambulance on the north side. Both would be able to provide paramedic intervention, meeting another squad along the route and hopping aboard the ambulance. Flemming, who came to Beaufort County from his position as EMS director of Washington, is also a paramedic and will be assigned a QRV, and will be available for response throughout the county, as needed.

Regardless of how the money is used, Flemming said complete coverage would rely on all resources available throughout the county.

“The paramedic service is to support the volunteer system we already have in place,” Flemming said. “It’s not there to do away with the volunteers.”

Joel Butler, president of Vidant Health Foundation, said helping counties provide the right mixture of services for sustainable healthcare is the mission of the Foundation, which has been giving out grants for such purposes since 1999. A similar grant was issued to Washington County for its transition to paramedic-level service, which Flemming oversaw.

“It’s not just about a hospital. Vidant has a role that encompasses much more than hospital care,” Butler said.

While county commissioners voted to accept the grant on Tuesday, it wasn’t the first time a Vidant Health Foundation grant to assist with paramedic-level service has been before the board. The first time, shortly after Vidant Health announced it would close its Belhaven hospital, commissioners voted no to a grant to help improve paramedic-level service. Commissioner Hood Richardson continues to have reservations about accepting the money, as stated at the meeting.

“This board seems to be getting hung up on ‘We can replace a hospital with paramedic-level service,’” Richardson said.

Richardson spoke of the push for paramedic-level service and Vidant Health’s recent stationing of its EastCare helicopter and ambulance at Washington-Warren Field Airport as signs that Vidant could repeat its actions with Belhaven’s hospital in Washington.

According to Harvey Case, president of Vidant Beaufort Hospital, the opposite is true.

“Vidant has a strong history of providing health care across eastern North Carolina and has no plans to close Vidant Beaufort Hospital,” Case said, also citing recent investments and expansions to the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center and the hospital emergency department.