City, county reach no EMS decision

Published 10:41 pm Sunday, January 29, 2017

City of Washington and county officials are still debating the future of EMS coverage in the city and Washington Township.

Officials met Thursday at the county administrative offices to rehash previously floated options to keep or cancel the EMS coverage contract the county currently has with the city, and to discuss a new option to share coverage.

In October, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted to cancel the longstanding contract with the city for EMS service to Washington Township, an area mostly west and north of the city, in an effort to bring Washington Township under the umbrella of Beaufort County EMS. Since, city officials have pushed back, pointing out that the canceled contract not only puts a $157,256 hole in the city’s budget — the amount of the contract — but deprives the city of billing revenue, which increases the potential cost to the city to more than $250,000.

County commissioners originally weighed three options with regard to the EMS contract with the city: continue coverage as is; increase coverage with a Washington-Fire-Rescue-EMS paramedic-level ambulance dedicated to EMS calls only, priced at an additional $572,000; or cancel the contract, replacing service with a BC EMS ambulance at Old Ford Volunteer Fire Department on U.S. Highway 17, seven miles north of Washington. Residents of Washington Township along the U.S. Highway 264 corridor have also objected to this plan, because response times from Old Ford would increase, whereas, currently, those response times from nearby Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS station No. 2, on West 15th Street, are minimal.

The new option floated in Thursday’s meeting is to share EMS coverage of Washington Township, with a BC EMS quick-response vehicle and paramedic stationed at Old Ford, and Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS continuing its coverage. Under this plan, the county would offer the city $58,302 per year, and the city would be able to continue collecting billing revenue, as the majority of calls would involve ambulance transport. The county’s cost would entail $250,000 in operational costs for the QRV and staff, which would be offset by revenue from a county EMS service district tax of 5 cents per $100 valuation on property within Washington Township. The numbers, as proposed, would mean a $121,000 appropriation from the county general fund — equal to the appropriation needed if the county took over service entirely.

During Thursday’s meeting, Washington City Councilman Doug Mercer said the shared coverage option represents a $100,000 hit for the city; County Manager Brian Alligood’s response was to say the $58,302 proposal is a starting point, and the numbers could change with negotiation.

Washington City Manager Bobby Roberson summed up the options, saying the county would not renew the contract as is, but prefers to take over Washington Township EMS service. He referred to the shared coverage scenario as an “olive branch” to the city from the county.

“You’re sitting here disassembling something that has worked fine for decades,” said Washington Mayor Mac Hodges, adding that while he receives complaints about many things, he’d never received a complaint about Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS coverage of Washington Township.

Councilman Richard Brooks also advocated for keeping the contract with the city. Mercer, however, said the county should consider taking over all EMS service in the county, including for the City of Washington, as EMS has changed dramatically, and continues to change, since the days when he and 15 others were trained in basic first aid by a local doctor before launching the first EMS squad.

One of those changes comes from the county’s launch last year of Emergency Medical Dispatch, the protocol by which telecommunicators decipher the urgency of a 911 call and send out units accordingly to fit the emergency, which now means the first ambulance dispatched no longer necessarily demands a paramedic presence, according to Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS Chief Robbie Rose.

“We’ve got a system in place that’s doing the job today. It’s not a perfect system. … The system can be improved, and the improvements should be one system,” Mercer said. “Where we are today and where we started is light years apart. … But we’re 10 years behind where we need to be.”

“The question of these two boards is who pays for it?” he asked, adding that the decision needs to be made soon, as both the city and county will be putting together their 2017-18 budgets in the near future.

No agreement was reached Thursday regarding the future of Washington Township’s EMS coverage, according to Alligood. Instead, the decision has been placed back in the hands of the county Board of Commissioners and has been added to the February meeting’s agenda.