Ambulance data rings alarm for county

Tia Lynn Ivey News

Morgan County officials are currently reviewing ambulance data after complaints in recent months alleging long wait times for emergency calls. Two cases in particular prompted local residents Ellen Sims and Beth Herring to lead the call for Morgan County to add another ambulance, believing just two ambulances are not sufficient to handle Morgan County’s emergency needs. Sims’ mother, Donna Martin, died last summer after a fatal wasp sting and waited 28 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and Herring aided several car accident victims in Bostwick in October who waited 58 minutes for an ambulance to arrive while bleeding on the side of the road.

According to County Manager Adam Mestres, county staff has pulled every call for an ambulance in Morgan County for the past 12 months and is reviewing response times from Morgan County’s designated two ambulances with National EMS and all out-of-county ambulances who respond to emergencies in Morgan County under mutual aid agreements.

“We are looking at everything,” said Mestres. “Our review will encompass everything—all the data to get a clearer pictures of what our emergency medical needs truly are.”

National EMS, our local private ambulance provider that was recently bought by Priority Ambulance, is required by a contract with Morgan county to respond to Priority 1 calls within 9 minutes and 59 seconds at a minimum of 90 percent of the time. . National EMS has been Morgan County’s ambulance provider since 1988. The county pays $289,000 a year for two ambulances that operate 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week to handle emergency calls in Morgan County, a community of 18,000 people, Both Mestres and Huey Atkins, National EMS Director of Operations for Morgan County, have maintained that Morgan County’s two designated ambulances meet the mandated response time standards. However, Atkins conceded that out-of-county ambulance response times, were not factored in to the quarterly assessment to calculate response time averages.  According to Morgan County Dispatch, from November 2017 through October 2018, out-of-county ambulances were called in a total of 88 times to respond to emergencies when Morgan County’s two designated ambulances from National EMS were either tied up on other calls and could not respond at all or needed more assistance on the scene. Morgan County typically fields about 2500 ambulance calls per years.

“We want to take an independent look at all the data—review it and analyze it—so we can make an informed decision about the emergency medical needs of the community at large,” said Mestres, who anticipates a discussion with county commissioners once staff finishes the internal review process.

According to Mestres, the data will broken down into four categories, calculating average response times for Priority 1, Priority 2, Priority 3 and Priority 4 calls.

“Once we verify all the data, and determine all the response times, the question we have to ask is what is the community willing to accept?” said Mestres.  According to Mestres, whether or not another ambulance is added will ultimately come down to cost and what the community is willing to pay for. According to National EMS, a third ambulance will cost the county $500,000 more per year—a cost that would likely be passed on to local tax payers.

“A half a million dollars would amount to a half mil increase to the millage rate,” explained Mestres in October. Mestres also noted the cost of a third ambulance would more than double the county’s current budget for ambulance service and would most certainly translate into a property tax increase. “Based on an average fair market value house of $225,000 a resident could expect to pay an extra $67.50 per year to help fund EMS. This does not include buying or building a station, maintenance, or other reoccurring costs. Of course, we have a lot of people in the county that have houses valued much higher than that as well,” said Mestres. “We do have an obligation to provide the best service possible within the means of what the county can afford—what the taxpayers are willing to pay for.”

Both Sims and Herring are continuing to make the case for a third ambulance. Sims was recently interviewed by WSB-TV Channel 2 News and Herring talked to Mestres just this week to press for another ambulance. Both women say they were deeply affected by this issue and want to prevent other families from ever having go through similar tragedies.

Sims tragically lost her mother Donna in July. Donna Martin, a 73-year-old Madison resident who succumbed to complications after a wasp sting, waited 28 minutes for an out-of-county ambulance to arrive after her granddaughter called 9-1-1 when she collapsed on July 21. Although an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter, Curry Wadsworth, arrived on the scene within 12 minutes after the initial call for help, he could perform CPR, but could not administer anaphylaxis drugs to counteract cardiac arrest. Once an ambulance from Greene County arrived, Martin was transported to Morgan Memorial Hospital where she was revived, but later was pronounced dead at an Athens hospital.

“I think it is only fair to ask the community – is this okay? If this were your loved one, would a 28-minute response time in a life-or-death situation be acceptable?” said Ellen Sims, Martin’s daughter. “You put your faith in the system. You entrust that calling 911 is your best bet for life-saving care. Our mother was a tax paying citizen of our county for 35 years, and our local EMS failed her…we had to wait 28 minutes for Greene County’s EMS team and ambulance to arrive.  Morgan County’s ambulance system never came…Our mom was the most important woman in our lives and she deserves a better response to this tragedy than people just telling us it was ‘unfortunate’ and that it was ‘just the perfect storm.’ Those responses alone are just not good enough. What is ‘unfortunate’ is that our current system in place failed her, and we need a community that stands with us to effect change. Our loved ones deserve such change, and so do yours,” said Sims.

In October, another incident drew the ire of Beth Herring, a local nurse, who happened to drive by a serious accident in Morgan County and waited with injured victims for nearly an hour before an ambulance arrived. On Tuesday, Oct. 9, a two-car crash on Highway 83 between Bostwick and Madison left seven people, including a teenager and an infant, on the side of the road waiting for an ambulance for 58 minutes before an out-of-county ambulance from Greene County finally arrived. Herring, a nurse at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital Medical Center, happened to drive past the accident and stopped to help. Herring noticed the adults and teenager from the first car were holding their arms and necks and the teenage boy was bleeding from his nose and forehead. The infant had no visible injuries, but she feared there could be internal injuries. “I was worried about internal bleeding for him and for the baby,” said Herring. Herring became most concerned for a young college girl, the driver who accidentally crashed into the other car, who was bleeding from her stomach while lying on the side of the road, unable to stand up.

“She said she couldn’t get up and was seeing stars,” said Herring. “She was complaining of abdominal pain. She laid there so long, ants started to crawl all over her.”

Herring waited with the accident victims. A first responder also happened to drive by and stopped at the scene. Police officers and other first responders with medical bags showed up on the scene, but all Morgan County ambulances were tied up on other calls. Initial calls for mutual aid from surrounding counties were also denied because of other emergencies.

The initial 9-1-1 call was made at 4:32 p.m. When one Greene County ambulance arrived at 5:30 p.m., there was not enough room to transport all seven victims to the hospital.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Herring. “Greene County was told there were only two victims injured. This isn’t a fluke. This is a serious problem in our town and in our county. What if these were your children laying on the asphalt for an hour, possibly bleeding to death, and being eaten by ants?” said Herring, who claims other law enforcement and medical officials at the scene admitted to her that this was not a rare occurrence.

“One of them said to me, you’d be surprised how often stuff like this happens, where we are on the side of the road just waiting and waiting for an ambulance,” remembered Herring. “I was born in this town and I love Madison.  I support it in every way. I think it’s great we have a new hospital and new schools, but what’s the point of having a new hospital, if people die before they can get there? It doesn’t make sense.”

The Morgan County Citizen conducted an investigation into the ambulance services of several surrounding counties with similar population sizes, land sizes, and call volumes.  Morgan is one of the few counties in the region with only two ambulances. After examining ambulance service in Greene, Putnam, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Rockdale, and Hancock counties, Greene County bears the most similarity to Morgan County’s makeup. Greene County runs three 24/7 ambulances plus a private service handles hospital transfers. Greene County’s population is about 1,000 less than Morgan County’s, with 17,281 residents spread across 387.44 square miles. Greene County averages around 2,900 calls for ambulances per year since 2016, a reduction from previous years since Greene County EMS stopped handling non-emergency transfers between hospitals. However, Greene County’s service costs nearly three times as much as Morgan County’s ambulance service.

Morgan County’s population is estimated to be 18,412 residents, spread out across 347.35 square miles. Morgan averages around 2,500 emergency ambulance calls per year. National EMS handles emergency medical calls as well as hospital transfers from Morgan Memorial Hospital. According to Amanda Proctor, director of Morgan County Dispatch, the number of emergency calls requiring ambulances is on track this year to outpace last year’s numbers. As of the end of October 2018, there have been 1,969 calls for ambulances. “We have had more calls than this time last year,” said Proctor. In 2017, there were 2,557 calls for ambulances, 2,436 in 2016, and 2,655 in 2015.

Mestres pledged to support adding a third ambulance if the numbers truly warrant it.

“We would support another ambulance if the numbers dictate that we need one despite the tax burden,” said Mestres. Mestres plans on discussing the options with the commissioners after the internal review of ambulance response times is completed.

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