A potential change in ambulance coverage has fire chief putting out fires
Though Gold Cross EMS announced the withdrawal of its request to become the primary provider for ambulance service in Richmond County on Monday, November 5, effectively ending a contentious week of meetings and maneuvering, Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James remained adamant about the threat the move posed for the city.
“I think that local governments should be the primary providers, and they should subcontract the service out,” he said.
Currently, Richmond County and Gold Cross are co-providers, which allows the city to control the calls and subcontract to Gold Cross. James feared that if Gold Cross were given primary provider designation, the city would lose control over the ambulance service.
With a contract, Richmond County sets the standards of service, but without a contract, those standards are left to the state, which doesn’t classify much more than the definition of an ambulance and the levels of certification you need for certain designations.
“But they don’t stipulate things such as response times, the number of ambulances you have to have available and what you can charge,” James said.
If a private company had the zone and a private citizen complained to one of their local commissioners, there would be nothing the commissioner could do, according to James. Instead, they’d have to file their complaint at a higher level.
That’s because in the complicated structure that governs ambulance service, whoever the state declares to be the sole provider controls who gets the calls. If Gold Cross were given that designation outright as they initially requested, they would have controlled the dispatch of ambulances and the city, which is required to continually have at least one ambulance staffed an on call in order to maintain its license, would likely never receive a call, at which point it would be cost prohibitive to keep the license.
Currently, the city staffs one ambulance, which runs all of the medical calls out of Station 13 on Lumpkin Road.
“If I take one ambulance and I take a salary of $35,000, one of the lowest salaries on the Fire Department, and I’ve got three shifts of two firefighter EMTs per shift riding on that apparatus, that would equal about $210,000 in salary, plus the $5,000 for the ambulance license that you have to pay the state every year,” James said. “So at the end, I’m going to be somewhere around $250,000 a year for an ambulance that I can not roll.”
In other words, being reduced to a secondary provider would have cost the city its license, because the city would be unwilling to spend $250,000 for something it couldn’t use. And once a community loses its license, it rarely gets it back.
In 1997, Columbia County decided to privatize its ambulance service, and according to Emergency and Operations Director Pam Tucker, she’s still getting notices from lawyers about lawsuits from back then.
She said giving up the ambulance was a way of saying goodbye to the liability.
“The county relinquished its license back to the state because we privatized,” she said. “The cost was somewhere around $3 million a year at that time, and we privatized and initially we paid $400,000.”
After adding the Furys Ferry Road ambulance, the cost went up to $500,000 a year. Tucker is about to renew the contract for the same price, and she said she’s happy with the arrangement she has with Gold Cross.
“We have our medical first responders with our fire department,” she said. “They run all life-threatening calls, so this is just a real good mix to be sure that the emergency medical needs of our citizens are well taken care of.”
Gold Cross runs five ambulances in Columbia County, though they have mutual aid agreements with neighboring counties that allows them to divert them if needed.
Tucker said each county has to find out what works for them.
“Some people like to have that hands-on control, but our relationship between the service and the county — you really can’t tell much difference that they’re not a part of our system.”
To James and Administrator Fred Russell, that control was worth fighting for.
“Even if we were willing to spend the $250,000 to keep our license, if we were reduced to being a secondary provider, you could have a heart attack two doors down the street from that station and you could not respond unless Gold Cross said you could respond.”You Might Also Like: