Rescuers' infighting intensifies

March 01, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Those who need to call 911 most likely don't know - and don't care - whether it's a volunteer medic or a paid one who responds. They want an ambulance in their driveway and a qualified person taking care of them or their loved one.

Both sides of a rift between the county's Emergency Ambulance Authority and volunteer EMTs and paramedics cite the needs of residents who require medical help as their primary concern.

A meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. today to address the concerns. It will be held at the Dunn Building, at the intersection of Raleigh and Stephen streets in Martinsburg.


A bevy of underlying complaints and problems are fueling the situation, which most recently came to a head when volunteer medical personnel refused to provide their Social Security numbers to the county, arguing they were never told exactly why the county needed them.

Teresa Cain, a volunteer EMT and assistant rescue chief at Hedgesville (W.Va.) Volunteer Fire Department, said the volunteers were willing and tried to turn in all of the information except for their Social Security numbers.

Charles Hall, president of the Ambulance Authority, said volunteers' Social Security numbers were requested by Medicare officials. Without them, the Ambulance Authority could lose an estimated $250,000 a year in Medicare funding - a significant portion of its $1.3 million annual budget, he said.

The county also asked that volunteers turn in paperwork that would allow for inspection of their driving records. The county needs to know whether everyone who drives an ambulance has a safe driving record, he said.

"A big (lawsuit) judgment against us could put us out of business," Hall said. "The risk there is more than I care to take."

Hall said that at 5 p.m. Monday he planned to send a letter asking the state to revoke the certifications of all volunteers who refused to turn in such information.

He said only about 12 of the county's 80 or so volunteers have turned in the required information.

The issue involves only medical personnel, not firefighters.

Response time

Cain said she worries that revoking the certification of volunteers would put members of the community at risk. She cited as an example the town of Hedgesville, from which a paid crew does not operate. Without volunteers, she said, residents of Hedgesville would face lengthy response times when they need help.

Currently, Hall said, the county has a paid staff of nine paramedics and nine EMTs. Coverage is provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the county's stations in Inwood, W.Va., and Martinsburg. Coverage is provided for 16 hours a day on all days expect for Sundays at the county's station near Falling Waters, W.Va.

Starting in July, coverage will be increased at the Falling Waters station to 24 hours a day on all days except for Sundays, Hall said.

If the volunteers refuse to turn over the requested information, he said additional paid personnel could be hired to ensure residents' needs are met.

Hall said he does not believe the county would need to revert to a system consisting entirely of paid personnel.

"There's always room for people who want to volunteer and serve their community," he said.

Cain said there are other issues that she hopes will be addressed at the meeting today.

Increasing tension

The county recently started requiring that all volunteers respond, on an ambulance, to at least two calls a month, and be at their volunteer stations for at least four hours a month, for nine months of the year.

"This alone has caused increased tension between the Authority and volunteers," Cain wrote in an e-mail to The Herald-Mail. "Many volunteers feel the Authority should not dictate when and how many times a month we volunteer for calls. Although the amount of calls and time spent on station may seem minimal, other factors make this hard for some members to meet these requirements. For example, only three members may be counted on an ambulance at a time. At our station alone, we may have nine or 10 EMTs on any given night trying to get their calls. However, only three may respond."

She said volunteers' morale is low because of the way they are treated by the Ambulance Authority.

"We are not asking for a pat on the back, but we do expect to be treated with the same professional courtesy and respect given to paid personnel," she wrote in the e-mail. "We all undergo the same requirements and training."

Also, she said, the Ambulance Authority has taken away ambulances from volunteer personnel - reducing the number of ambulances at each of the county's five volunteer stations from two ambulances to one.

Hall justified the reduction by citing the costs of keeping and maintaining the ambulances at volunteer fire stations.

"We have a different view of things," Hall said.

Volunteers seem to think if they had more ambulances they could respond to more calls, but Hall said the number of volunteers seems to be dwindling, while the number of paid personnel has been increasing.

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