On March 1 of this year, the Jefferson County Commission officially reorganized the county’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) operations as a department reporting to the County Administrator. Previously, the EMS operations were managed by the Emergency Services Agency (ESA), an independent organization created to coordinate both fire and emergency medical services throughout the county.
Jefferson County received special authorization from the state in 2008 to set up this joint fire-ambulance board, which was tasked with coordinating fire and emergency medical services provided by the seven volunteer companies and the ESA’s own paid staff of emergency medical personnel. The County Commission appoints the ESA’s board, but it operates as an independent organization with its own finance and administrative systems. The Commission is using federal ARPA grant funding to cover the costs of the transition and the first year of operations. Although the department launched on March 1 to manage the front line operations of providing ambulance services, some support functions are still being processed through the ESA, including service billing and payroll.
As part of the department transition, Jefferson County purchased ambulances from the volunteer fire companies and began paying rent to house the equipment and ESA-paid staff in the four stations initially designated for ambulances (see map, above) — 2 ambulances each at Citizens and Independent, 1 at Harpers Ferry, and 1 at Shepherdstown. Bob Burner, the then-Director of the ESA, noted in February that the initial equipment deployment and staff assignment plan would need to be evaluated and changes should be expected, based on data and actual experience after the transition.
Request to Move Ambulances to Middleway and Blue Ridge Mountain stations
Residents of the areas served by the Blue Ridge Mountain and Middleway volunteer fire companies have voiced concern that the initial ambulance deployment model would result in longer response times in their areas. The ESA Board had a lengthy discussion about these concerns at its monthly meeting on April 18 and voted to relocate an ambulance to each of these two companies (arrows on map).
During the ESA meeting, there were many questions from both board members and staff about whether the call data since March 1 justified this change, and even whether the ESA board has any authority on this action. The ambulances and the lease agreements with the volunteer companies are now the responsibility of the County Commission, not the ESA board, so it would be up to the Commission to take up the question posed by the ESA Board’s action. The ESA board’s vote was mentioned at the April 20 Commission meeting, but it will be up to the Commissioners to put it on the agenda of a future meeting for any action.
Mike Sine, interim Director of the ESA, noted that changing the ambulance deployment would reduce the ability to balance calls dispatched from the centrally-located Independent and Citizens stations, likely resulting in higher workloads on the crews at those stations. During the ESA discussion, the participants kept coming back to the unresolved question of funding, with several board members acknowledging that the budgeted number of EMS staff positions are not enough to provide the coverage that the residents are asking for. And the department’s budget is more optimistic than the reality — Sine noted that the county has been able to fill only 1 of the 12 new positions authorized by the Commission to support the current deployment, which he attributed to the significantly higher pay scales of the surrounding jurisdictions. As ESA board member Tony Troxel described it during the meeting: “we’re being asked to do more than we can with what we have.”
County Commission Declines To Add More Staffing
During the regular meeting of the Jefferson County Commission on May 4, Sine presented a request to fund the additional staff that would be needed to support the changes discussed by the ESA Board. During the discussion, the Commission noted the slow progress in filling the previously authorized positions and declined to take any action on the additional staffing or requested relocations of the ambulances.By Staff Contributor