Instant Impact: Richland EMS Story Draws Immediate DHEC, County Response
By RON AIKEN
Despite a shortage of personnel that has led to a significant reduction in available ambulances on the road on any given night from a recommended 20 or more to as few as 14 or fewer, Richland County has spent $1.8 million on 29 new ambulances over the past two years according to information obtained by Quorum through a Freedom of Information Act request.
While multiple sources say the county has been experiencing a serious shortage of manpower since 2015 that has led to a deterioration in patient care, it has not experienced a shortage of new ambulances that sit empty in County-owned lots.
The review by Quorum of Richland County spending on ambulances over the past two years revealed:
- The County bought 19 new ambulances in 2015 at a cost of $2.02 million;
- In 2016 the County purchased eight new ambulances for a total of $709,920; and
- So far in 2017, Richland County has purchased two new ambulances for a total of $177,480.
The prices paid for ambulances — all purchased from the same vendor, Taylor Made — ranged from $78,994 to $125,920 per unit.
“New ambulances aren’t our problem,” said a 10-plus year veteran with Richland EMS who asked not to be identified. “We need people, and we need them right now. The stress and strain this schedule puts on people every day they come to work has created a dangerous situation for patients and for people on the road while we’re running Code Four (lights and sirens) to keep up.”
Quorum has confirmed that on the day the story ran about significant problems with Richland County’s EMS service due to severe staff and supply shortages, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control took immediate notice, making an unscheduled inspection that afternoon, according to DHEC spokesperson Robert Yanity.
Additionally, several sources cited in the story reported that EMS senior staff also wasted no time taking action.
According to multiple sources, after the story broke the morning of Thursday, April 27, senior staff held an “emergency” meeting; an immediate inventory was launched of all EMS trucks to determine what medicines were at-hand and report anything missing.
“A little while later there was staff at the hospitals replacing items,” said a source who asked not to be identified. “They were busy inventorying the trucks to verify that they were out of Narcan and glucagon, used for dangerously low sugar when an IV cannot be obtained.”
A source close to the DHEC inspection team said that while Richland EMS passed the inspection late that afternoon thanks to the morning’s efforts, had the inspection been the day before, it would not have.
“The day before, they would absolutely have not been up to par,” said the source. “They had to scramble.”
The following Monday, May 1, the Richland County Public Information Office responded to the story with a press release of its own posted to the county website actively seeking employees to fill open EMS positions in a tacit admission of damaging personnel shortages.
“The County is committed to addressing the needs of the EMS staff and continuing to encourage others who are interested in seeking employment,” County Administrator Gerald Seals said in the release.
Already short-staffed and running anywhere from 18 to 20 calls an evening, sources say, and doing so with lights and sirens running near constantly to address the call volume, medical professionals complained that too many trucks are sent out, especially on weekends, to sit for hours at special events of all stripes while remaining crews struggle to keep up. In the release, that fact was spun as a positive recruitment tool.
“Last year, EMS staff participated in more than 650 public events,” the release stated. “For some EMS personnel, such events offer perks unique to Richland County: interacting with Gamecock fans at Williams-Brice Stadium, assisting people at a State House gathering – or even meeting a favorite performer at The Township.”
For EMTs and paramedics who aren’t allowed to take vacation during Gamecock football season and who work every standby day they have, saving lives should be the County’s focus, not special events.
“It’s great for the crews who can go watch a high school football game at their alma mater, which happens, but it’s not great for the crews who are out breaking their necks to pick up the slack,” said Matt Gottlieb, a former paramedic with Richland EMS for five years who left in September. “It’s one thing when you have enough crews to handle the calls, but that’s not the case at all in Richland County. At all.
“A truck never saved a life. Only people save lives.”