'We're going to kill somebody': NC fire chief makes impassioned plea for staffing

Taylors Bridge Fire Chief Alan Williams was explicit in his request for an additional six full-time paramedics to ensure adequate medical coverage for the area


Chris Berendt
The Sampson Independent, Clinton, N.C.

Taylors Bridge Fire Chief Alan Williams addresses the Sampson County Board of Commissioners regarding a request made for six additional paramedics, which is currently not included in the county's 2021-22 budget.

"We're going to hurt somebody in this county ... we're going to kill somebody in this county the direction we're going. We see it out there every day. I strongly urge you to reconsider, and please add those six paramedics."

Photo/Taylors Bridge Fire Department

— Taylors Bridge Fire Chief Alan Williams

A request for six paramedics is poised to go unfilled in a proposed 2021-22 Sampson County budget, a prospect that has brought concerns from emergency officials who voiced the imminent need for the additional personnel.

Taylors Bridge Fire Chief Alan Williams spoke to the matter during Monday's regular Sampson County Board of Commissioners meeting, which including a public hearing on the 2021-22 county budget that was presented last month.

"One of the most emergent needs is the addition of six additional paramedics, which will allow us to staff an additional ambulance 24 hours a day," Erick Herring, operations chief for Sampson County EMS in his formal budget request. "This will move us from having six ambulances staffed to seven."

The salary cost of adding six paramedics would be $229,536, Herring noted. The request, at least in County Manager Ed Causey's recommendation, hit the cutting-room floor. The county manager cited the need to evaluate the request further.

Among the many items in the proposed budget, Causey did recommend adding positions for Environmental Health, Recreation, and the Detention Center, as well as converting a requested DSS part‐time position to full time. The paramedic request was not part of the recommended budget for 2021-22.

"We will hold the request for paramedics in abeyance and do an in‐depth review over the next year. We want to review schedules, headquarter locations, data on calls, better utilization of the volunteers, etc. and respond to our potential needs in the most proactive and responsible manner possible," Causey stated in his budget message. "We will then recommend additional positions as needed."

Williams said the issue is approaching dire status.

"Right now, there's only six advanced life support units in this county — only six. From (N.C.) Highway 24 north, there's five — two in Clinton, three staged in the northern end of the county; (from N.C.) 24 south, there's only one," said Williams.

When that unit goes out on a call, the number available, specifically for the southern end, drops to zero. Williams called the $230,000 for "six paramedics who can save lives a small price to pay for what needs to be done."

"That won't fix the EMS problem in the county, but it's a start," said Williams.

Williams pointed to a few incidents where resources just have not been available to those who needed them.

A teenager from Charlotte whose team was playing against Harrells Christian Academy broke his collarbone during a game. Williams was there, but there were no paramedics available.

"He laid on the football field for 45 minutes. I sat there with him with his parents," Williams recalled. "That's unacceptable."

Another Harrells incident, this time a wreck a few weeks back, saw three patients waiting on the side of the roadway nearly an hour to be transported following a wreck as a unit had to come all the way from Newton Grove, Williams said.

"When we're called, we go and we can perform life-saving measures, but we need those advanced life support units," the Taylors Bridge fire chief remarked. "I'm asking that you reconsider that request. It was not recommended in the proposed budget I saw."

"I've seen it firsthand," said Williams. "We're going to hurt somebody in this county. I told ( Board of Commissioners Chairman) Mr. Clark Wooten, we're going to kill somebody in this county the direction we're going. We see it out there every day. I strongly urge you to reconsider, and please add those six paramedics. That won't get but one truck, but that's one we don't have. Because when that truck's gone, there's nothing. I don't have anybody to call for help."

Commissioner Lethia Lee said experienced a similar 45-minute wait when her husband was having heart problems. She echoed Williams' sentiment that it was "unacceptable" to be waiting that long in a potential life and death situation.

Williams said public safety is also in jeopardy when first responders are then rushing to calls in an attempt to make up the time lost traveling across the county.

"They're driving more aggressively than they would normally drive trying to make up that difference," said Williams. "We're going to hurt somebody. The issue right now is, from Clinton south, when that unit is gone, we don't have anybody there."

While multiple trucks and more paramedics than just the six is the greater fix, not moving in that direction is what concerns Williams. "My concern is, if we don't add this back (to the proposed budget), we're going to go another year without that one truck," he stated.

Herring said the pandemic put pressure on local emergency responders and hospitals, but the issue is not being alleviated even as the cloud from the pandemic is lifted.

"This past year has been extremely taxing on our system, largely due to the pandemic," Herring stated. "However, it does not appear that things are getting any better any time soon."

Herring said area hospitals have been taxed to the limit resulting in ambulances having to wait extended periods of time at the emergency rooms for a bed. During 2019, the average ER wait time was 23 minutes, while in recent months, that time has increased to 36.4 minutes, Herring noted.

"At no fault of the local ERs, we have had ambulances have to wait hours for a bed with the maximum time just over 4 hours," Herring stated. "Again, at no fault of their own, there have been several times when our local ER has gone on total diversion resulting in ( Sampson County) EMS having to take all of our patients out of the county to an ER. This also increases the turnaround time for an ambulance being back in service and ready for calls. It is not uncommon for us to have no ambulances available for response or maybe one ambulance to cover the entire county.

"Our citizens deserve and expect to have an ambulance readily available when needed," Herring continued.

On one particular day in late January 2021, all Sampson County EMS units were busy on calls and there were three calls pending with nobody available to respond.

"This is taking a toll on our staff as it's resulting in less down time to catch up on reports and other duties. The pandemic has likewise taken a toll on our volunteers," Herring noted. "They are doing their best to help answer calls whenever possible however, the amount of calls they're able to answer has dwindled over the last year. For year 2019, our volunteers answered a total of 1,119 calls, compared to a total of 635 calls for year 2020."

During Monday's meeting, Causey reread the portion of his budget message addressing the paramedic request.

"Obviously, the board can do what it wants," said Causey. "We're acknowledging the problem, but with the monies we're expending, we want to do an in-depth review to make sure what we're doing is targeted and we're getting the most bang for the buck."

Commissioner Jerol Kivett clarified that the funds in the budget are the funds the county has — no more.

"Right," said Causey. "And I don't mean that curtly, but if we would have had more money, we would have spent more money."

"That's a problem that we have, trying to figure out how we can make the budget fit everything in such a large county, geographically," said Kivett. "The other thing you said is 'we're going to kill someone. How are we going to kill someone?"

Williams said that, should his fire department respond to a structure fire, "by the county contract" there is supposed to be an EMS advanced life support transport unit on the scene when the department is actively fighting fire. There are six units in the county, so if there is a structure fire, that would theoretically tie one of those units up as being dedicated to that fire, Williams noted.

In the event calls exceed resources, others would have to be brought in from surrounding counties, which just increases wait times in many cases.

"We wouldn't want to go out and hire 20 paramedics and add six trucks if that's not what we needed," said Williams. "Where I told Commissioner Wooten that we we're going to kill somebody is there's nobody. That truck the other day that had to wait 45 minutes, and we had to sit with those three kids on the side of the road; we can't do chest compressions for 45 minutes and have a viable (operation)."

"We don't carry the equipment, the drugs they need, to save lives," said Williams.

The Sampson County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet for budget workshops on June 15 and June 22 in the County Administration Building. Both workshops are set for 6 p.m.

The 2021-2022 proposed budget is available for public inspection in the Office of the Clerk to the Board, County Administration Building, 406 County Complex Road, Clinton, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. The proposed budget may also be viewed online at https://bit.ly/2Tk6uiN. Budget comments can be sent to [email protected]

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(c)2021 The Sampson Independent (Clinton, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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