Accomack Explains EMS Staffing Policies Ahead of Aug. 18 Hearing

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By Carol Vaughn —

Accomack County residents can weigh in at two public hearings Wednesday on whether the county should add employees to its payroll to enable Greenbackville Volunteer Fire Department to have county-paid firemedics at the station around the clock.
The hearings at the Accomack County Board of Supervisors Wednesday, Aug. 18, meeting at Metompkin Elementary School in Parksley begin at 6:30 p.m. The meeting begins at 5 p.m.
Greenbackville, Saxis Volunteer Fire Company, and Melfa Volunteer Fire and Rescue are the last three volunteer companies in the county with ambulances that are without 24-7 coverage by Accomack County Department of Public Safety personnel.
Greenbackville requested 24-hour staffing from the county.
Staffing decisions are made based on data and at the volunteer companies’ request, according to Director of Public Safety Charles R. Pruitt.
Pruitt in July presented to the board of supervisors a proposal to add 12 full-time employees in order to accommodate 24-hour, seven-day-a-week staffing at Greenbackville — including seven more employees to fill three shifts at the station, three backfill positions, a training coordinator, and a position in the human resources department to handle the increased employee numbers.
At an estimated cost of $794,219, an EMS tax increase would be required in fiscal year 2024 to pay for the additional staff.
Greenbackville is supposed to have two county employees at the station on weekdays during the day, but actually has been fully staffed only 35 days in the past year, Pruitt said, noting the public safety department currently has three vacancies for daytime positions, in addition to 24-hour vacancies and employees on extended leave.
Greenbackville Volunteer Fire Department spends around $24,000 a year of its own money to pay EMS personnel, according to Barry Outten, the fire chief.
The county’s public safety department currently has 45 full-time, 24/7 EMS employees, seven daytime employees, and seven part-time employees, compared to the 1980s, when the county started paying EMS personnel, with just eight employees.

Reliability Benchmark

Greenbackville over the past year had a reliability of 34%, compared to all other departments that handle EMS calls in the county, which had reliability between 82% and 100%, according to Pruitt’s presentation.
The data does not account for the number of ambulance calls each company responds to outside its primary service area.
The percentage is calculated based on the number of calls in a station’s primary service area, the number of calls that take more than 20 minutes to respond to, and the number of calls handled by another agency.
The board of supervisors established the benchmark of the first responding unit being on the scene in 20 minutes or under 90% of the time after Virginia in 2006 required all localities to develop an EMS response plan.
“What’s happened over the years, what’s dictated the volunteer stations getting staff, is that station does not meet that benchmark,” Pruitt said.
Greenbackville between July 2020 and June 2021 had 126 of 192 calls handled by another agency and had 17% of calls taking over 20 minutes for help to arrive on the scene.

Dwindling Volunteer Numbers

“It’s two things driving it. One is that when our folks aren’t there, they rely totally on volunteers, but our folks aren’t there even during the standard time…8 to 4:30, because he (Pruitt) has to pull them,” said Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason, adding Saxis also has its DPS staff pulled frequently to meet staffing needs in stations with a higher call volume.
“So not only…we don’t staff them in the evening hours, but we can’t staff them in the daytime hours a lot of times, too, because we have holes to fill in other areas of the system, in other firehouses that run much more calls than Greenbackville does,” Mason said.
Pruitt said the number of volunteers is dwindling not only locally, but around the country.
“We’re no different here in Accomack County than across the state and across the country,” he said.
Saxis Volunteer Fire Department President Aubrey Justice said Saxis has around 15 to 17 active volunteers, but only around five who respond to ambulance calls, including two drivers and three EMTs.
While the station is supposed to have two DPS staff in the daytime, that actually happened fewer than 100 days last year, conservatively speaking, and most likely no more than 50, Justice said.
“It has not worked,” he said.
Saxis had 131 calls in its primary service area last year, with only one call with over 20 minutes response time and 23 answered by another agency, according to Pruitt’s presentation.
“We do get good help from Oak Hall Rescue, which is all DPS staff, and the SPRINT vehicle,” Justice said.
Saxis has not requested 24/7 coverage from DPS, he said.
“I’m not saying it’s not going to come a time, but right now, no … Saxis does not want to spend taxpayers’ money when it’s not necessary — and it’s not necessary right now for us to ask for 24/7. All we’re asking for is a little bit of help daytimes when we’re working,” Justice said, adding, “We would like to keep the daytime staffing. When that personnel happens to leave and go to a 24-hour position, we want somebody back in that station in a quick turnaround, not six months, eight months, ten months,” he said.
Saxis’ fire department in recent years has spent more than $27,000 a year of its own money to pay fire medics, but at present has just one person who is paid for one or two overnight shifts per week.
Justice said in the past, if a volunteer department did not respond to a certain percentage of calls, according to state guidelines, “you could have your license revoked.”
“We’re being punished because we’re answering our calls,” he said.
Justice said he told county supervisors at the last board meeting that, while Saxis is not requesting 24/7 staffing at present, if the request that is the subject of the public hearings is approved, “I don’t want to hear when I come up to this podium two years from now, or it might be three, I don’t know when … I don’t want to hear that you don’t want to do this because of this fact.”
“What they should do is, if you’ve got an ambulance at your station, put 24/7 into it and be done with this,” Justice said.
Greg Nottingham, president of Melfa Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said Melfa has two DPS employees assigned to the station Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Melfa pays out of the company’s own pocket a stipend of $65 each per shift for two people to cover the overnight shift, and pays a stipend of $100 for 24-hour shifts on the weekends, or more for holidays or if a person covers an entire weekend.
Melfa is spending between $50,000 and $70,000 a year on stipends and associated taxes.
That expense means the company doesn’t have that money to put towards other purchases, such as fire vehicles, among other items.
The company has only around nine members actively running calls.
Melfa has asked the county for 24-hour staffing in the past, according to Nottingham.
“What should have happened is when they restructured Wachapreague’s ambulance to Painter, they should have done it across the board,” he said.
That was in 2016, when the Accomack County Board of Supervisors approved a three-cent EMS tax increase for fiscal year 2017 to pay for additional full-time fire medics, six of whom were to be stationed at Painter, where Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Company agreed to place its ambulance in order to address response time issues in the southern part of the county.
Chincoteague operates its own emergency medical services and was not included in the increase.
Accomack County in addition to providing DPS employees to work at the stations contributes around $130,000 a year to each volunteer fire company. The companies also receive money from billing for emergency medical services and around $15,000 a year in state aid.

 

 

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