Family calls for increased EMS services in county
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Nov 30, 2012, 14:55
When Becky Burdette’s 88 year old mother, Borgney Hampton, began gasping for air on the morning of Nov. 11, Burdette called 9-1-1.
That call came in to the Prince George Communications Center at 10:46 a.m. that morning.
“They told me they would have an ambulance there and 33 minutes later, they had an ambulance arrive, but it was too late,” Burdette said.
Her mother had died on the floor in the hallway.
Prince George County only had one paid ambulance crew at the time and that crew was already answering another call.
At 10:48 a.m., a call went out for any available EMS volunteers in the system.
When no volunteers were able to respond, mutual aid was requested from Hopewell at 10:49 a.m. Hopewell could not respond to the call.
At 10:58 a.m., Charles City was contacted for mutual aid. An ambulance crew arrived at Burdette’s address in the Jordan on the James neighborhood at 11:19 a.m. Hampton was dead on arrival.
Burdette said that at the time she made the call, she had no idea Prince George Fire and EMS only had resources to maintain one paid ambulance crew, a situation she wants to see changed.
“I don’t want anybody to have to go through that, and if there’s only one emergency unit that’s paid in Prince George County, that’s not sufficient,” she said. “And you can’t always depend on volunteers, because that is a volunteer position and they have other obligations.”
Burdette’s neighbor, Benton Woodruff, who retired from Chesterfield Fire and EMS after 31 years of service, spoke at the Prince George County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, describing what he sees as a need for an increased number of paid EMS personnel in the county.
Speaking the day after the meeting, Woodruff, a neighbor and close friend of Hampton and the Burdettes, said that the population of Prince George County has grown rapidly in recent years, creating a need for a larger number of EMS employees.
“The call load has outnumbered the people they have to respond,” he said.
It is possible that Hampton would have passed away, even if an ambulance had arrived quickly, but Woodruff said he thinks everyone deserves a quick response.
“I’m not a doctor,” he said. “I can’t say whether she would have lived or died, but I think she would have had a fair chance if E.M.S. had arrived in a timely manner.”
Brad Owens, Director of Fire and EMS for the county, confirmed the timeline of events and said Woodruff’s comments at the meeting accurately described a situation many county residents might not know exists.
“He stated the facts,” Owens said. “That’s what I think a lot of people out here need to know. Maybe they don’t understand the response system that’s out here.”
In October, Owens requested authorization from the board to hire another paid, full-time E.M.S. employee to work out of the Jefferson Park Fire Station during the peak call hours of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The board granted the request, but that person had not come on duty by Nov. 11. The position has since been filled, but is only funded through Jan. 31. At that point, the board will have to vote on whether it wants to maintain that employee.
“It’s known that we’ve wanted to do better, and now is certainly a time for the board of supervisors to review where we are with EMS coverage,” county administrator Percy Ashcraft said. “And there may be a need for an increase in staffing.”
In order to have a second paid ambulance crew available, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the county would have to hire six additional employees, costing about $51,000 a piece, a price which includes salary and benefits as well as uniforms and gear.
“In a nutshell, it’s going to cost $300,000 to put another medic unit on,” Owens said.
In recent years, the county has not had $300,000 to spare. Last year, the board had to raise personal property taxes in the face of declining revenues from real estate taxes and a slow down in construction following the conclusion of Base Re-alignment and Closure at Fort Lee.
To generate the money the county would need to provide a second crew for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, each person’s tax bill would have to increase by 1.5 cents, per every $100, Ashcraft said. If that were to happen, county residents would see their required payments increase from 80 cents per $100 to 81.5 cents per $100.
Ashcraft said that if the board decides another EMS crew is needed, he will build the county’s budget around that fact. On Tuesday, the board expressed sympathy for Burdette’s loss.
“It doesn’t come without a price,” Ashcraft said.
“If we do make a recommendation to increase taxes, then we would certainly show the public that whatever increase it was was dedicated to this particular situation,” he said.
“I would do that with all other increases that may occur, whether it be in education or capital improvements, because I think that people are a little bit more receptive to paying more as a citizen if they can directly see the benefit of an increase.”
The benefit of a second paid EMS crew would be decreased reliance on mutual aid, something Ashcraft said the county relies on heavily, and quicker response times.
In Hampton’s case, that might have saved her life.
Individuals have also seen their personal budgets shrink in the current economy, a fact that has placed a strain on what Ashcraft said has always been a very strong volunteer Fire and EMS system that exists in the county
Owens said that he’s seen an increasing number of volunteers have to take second jobs or work longer hours to make ends meet, decreasing the amount of time they have to devote to their volunteer service.
“We have an outstanding group of volunteers out here who are really dedicated, but they’re...being hit by the same economic situations every other family is being hit with,” he said. “...They’ll give you all they can give you when they can give it to you.”
Benton, who was a volunteer fire fighter himself before he was hired by Chesterfield County, said that the current situation is unsustainable.
“I have all the respect in the world for volunteers, but there comes a time when they need assistance,” he said. “I think times are coming that they need professional assistance in Prince George County with EMS.”
While the county has endeavored to decrease expenditures to keep pace with declining revenues by consolidating and reclassifying some positions while eliminating others through attrition, in the case of Fire and EMS, that is not an option.
“I think it’s made us more efficient, but when you’re talking about something like this, we can’t do anything else but hire additional people to man shifts,” Ashcraft said.
He also noted that he is not aware of any complaints regarding response times for fires in the county.
Burdette and Woodruff pointed to another area where the county might need to make investments.
“The one thing that really shocks me is that no one from dispatch even called back within that period of time to say there was a problem, because I would have called other people,” Burdette said, describing the 33 minutes she waited for help, unable to move her mother into the car to drive to the hospital and unable to contact her neighbors, who were all at church.
Police Chief Edward Frankenstein said that dispatchers are often dealing with a high volumes of calls and have to make a determination about the gravity of situations based on the information they receive in the initial conversation.
There are programs, including Emergency Medical Dispatch and Priority Dispatch, which provide call center personnel with the training on how to triage requests for assistance to determine the appropriate level of response and provide instructions to callers on how to assist victims while they are waiting for EMS to arrive.
“I definitely agree with both programs,” Owens said. “I think they’re highly beneficial and I think it’s something that Prince George is probably going to be doing relatively soon as the staffing is available in the communications center.”
Frankenstein said he is also a proponent of the training, but said that an issue is current staffing levels in the communications center. He said that before implementing the program, he would have to be certain services could be offered consistently to all callers.
Burdette said she hopes that by calling attention to the strain on EMS services in the county, using her own story as an illustration, she will be able to promote changes that could help other families.
“I don’t want anybody to have to go through that,” Burdette said, describing how she felt waiting for the ambulance to arrive. “I had two granddaughters there, one 13 and one eight, who had to witness it. I sent them outside when I saw her deteriorating that quickly, but they were still there. That’s rough on an eight-year-old and a 13-year-old.”
The board expressed sympathy on Tuesday. Ashcraft said he hopes to schedule an initial budget session for the board in January.