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Sharpsburg ambulance service reorganizing

November 08, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

SHARPSBURG - Back on the job for nearly two months, the chief of Sharpsburg volunteer ambulance company is approaching a massive reorganization as if he is starting a new service.

The Sharpsburg Area Emergency Medical Services Inc. still is on probation, but Larry Myers said he hopes new bylaws, new officers and help from the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association will put the company back on track.

It has been a tumultuous year for the service, marked by infighting and staffing shortages. The troubles culminated in August with Myers taking a month-long leave of absence and the county association assuming day-to-day control of the company.

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For the past couple months, the company has not been able to provide Advanced Life Support to patients. During that period, ambulance companies in Williamsport and Boonsboro have covered the area.

Although Myers insists Sharpsburg area residents never faced danger from the predicament, association President Jay Grimes acknowledged that coming from Boonsboro or Williamsport delayed response by as much as seven minutes.

"It can be very critical. That was an issue of concern," he said.

Rebuilding

The fire and rescue association assumed daily control of the ambulance company on Aug. 13 and Myers announced a 30-day leave due to stress over what he termed a "power struggle."

About three weeks prior to that, the association placed the company on probation because it had fewer than 10 certified emergency medical technicians. The state and county require at least 10, Grimes said.

Initially, association officials intended to oversee operations for 60 days, but administrative planner Robert P. Cumberland said day-to-day control lasted only a few weeks.

The association acted quickly to correct the disarray that had descended on the department. Officials hired an expert to put the company's finances in order and reduce a billing backlog. They also hired paid medics to staff the station during the day when volunteers are scarce.

The move had been hotly debated and resisted by some in the department, the last ambulance company in the county that had no paid personnel.

Since returning, Myers, who has been chief for the last 13 years, said he has worked to build on those changes and maintain stability.

"We're going to start all over," he said. "We're going to start from scratch. It's going to take some time to rebuild."

The department has hired a full-time administrator - Brigitte Heller, chairwoman of the county association's EMS Committee - to run the staff, Myers said. She starts in December. Heller also will respond to emergencies and develop public education programs.

Myers said officials have also reworked the company's bylaws. Members of the company will vote on the changes along with new officers later this month, he said.

Myers said the bylaws, modeled after other fire and ambulance companies, attempt to eliminate confusion over such issues as who is eligible to vote on company policies and who can run on ambulance calls.

The new bylaws, if approved, also would limit the chief to two consecutive two-year terms and pare the department's officers to three positions: chief, captain and lieutenant.

Problems remain

Despite the enthusiasm, Myers said he realizes the company faces a number of challenges, the biggest of which is finding qualified volunteers.

Including him, Myers said there are five active EMTs, far short of the minimum requirement. He said the company will scour the 3,700 homes in its coverage area for potential members. He said he ultimately would like to have 15 to cover evening and night hours.

Two people are taking the 120 hours of classes needed to be certified, Myers said.

Meanwhile, Heller and an as-yet-to-be-hired paid EMT will cover the station from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The station has been paying EMTs on a temporary basis.

But Grimes said that is costing the station $9,000 a month.

"At this point, it's OK. (But) it's not something the station can handle for the long term," he said.

To recruit and retain volunteers, the company will rely heavily on Heller, 19-year veteran of the Boonsboro volunteer rescue company.

Heller said she will stress the $3,000 tax break volunteers can receive and try to convince people with experience to come back. Officials said they also hope elected leaders from the town take up their cause.

Building the staff back up may also require erasing the negative feelings that intensified over the last few years. A number of medics left the company citing concerns with the way it was run.

Myers said rewriting the bylaws will take care of some of those problems.

So far, the changes appear to be taking hold. Danielle Beasley, who lamented disorganization a few months ago, said morale "still has a long way to go" but noted a marked improvement.

"So far, pretty good," said Beasley, who has not been active recently because of a back injury.

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