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County officials want to improve EMTs-Authority relations

March 02, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - The Berkeley County Commission tried to act as a conciliatory go-between Tuesday for at-odds volunteer EMS providers and the county's administrative Emergency Ambulance Authority.

Scattered applause came at the end of the nearly hour-long meeting, when Commissioner Howard Strauss pledged to try to strengthen the relationship.

"Whatever it will take for us to work better together, I'd like to see (it)," Strauss said.

A bevy of underlying complaints and problems fueled the friction between the Ambulance Authority and the county's volunteers, which most recently came to a head when many volunteer medical personnel refused to provide their Social Security numbers to the county, arguing they were never told exactly why the county needed them.

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On Tuesday afternoon, Commission President Steve Teufel held up a 67-page Medicare form, which requires the Social Security numbers and dates of birth of anyone who provides emergency medical services.

Otherwise, he said, Medicare could refuse to reimburse the county for services it provides.

Strauss asked that a copy of Medicare's policy be provided to everyone who wanted one.

By the end of the meeting a representative of each of the county's five volunteer rescue stations agreed to provide the Ambulance Authority with the requested information, including Social Security numbers, by a deadline that was extended to April 1.

Still, if opinions voiced after the meeting are any indication, working better together is not going to happen overnight.

Volunteers' assets

Volunteers say the tension has been brewing for years.

The Ambulance Authority was created years ago to oversee all paid and volunteer EMTs and paramedics. At one time, numerous volunteers sat on the Ambulance Authority, but now none do, several people said.

Two volunteers - Teresa Cain, with Hedgesville Volunteer Fire Department, and Mary Lou Largent, with Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department - said Tuesday that they applied for a seat on the authority, but were denied.

More than 30 people attended the meeting, with most wearing clothing affiliated with a local fire company.

Although EMS personnel are stationed at volunteer fire departments, the current debate does not involve firefighters, who answer to the county's Fire Board, a separate entity.

Charles R. Hall, president of the Ambulance Authority, opened the meeting by saying 18 of the county's approximately 80 volunteers provided all of the requested information.

About 17 others turned in some of the requested paperwork, he said.

Robert Robinson, president of the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department and an EMT, said he was reluctant to turn in his Social Security number if it was going to be used to conduct a background check.

Problems exist, he said, but he said that nobody has sat down together to try to work things out.

"If things continue like this, the volunteers are going to get pushed out," he said. "Without the volunteers, you're going to have to pay a whole lot more (for paid personnel) and it's not fair."

Rufus Sine, rescue chief at Bedington, said that volunteers respond during snowstorms, tornadoes, bad wrecks and other situations.

"We save the county money," he said.

Eliminating volunteers by switching to an EMS system consisting entirely of paid personnel would be a waste of resources, he said. "You're going to pay those guys 90 percent of the time for doing nothing," Sine said.

Teufel, who sits on the Ambulance Authority board, said he supports the volunteers but said they need to comply with regulations. He also said he would hate to recommend that the Ambulance Authority remove ambulances from volunteers and turn them over to paid personnel.

Later, Cain said she considered the comment Teufel made about removing ambulances to be "a threat."

Volunteers are dissatisfied with the Ambulance Authority in part because it has already removed some ambulances and because it provides second-hand equipment. No new equipment has been provided for volunteers at Hedgesville for years, Cain said.

Hall previously justified removing the ambulances by saying that the number of paid personnel continues to increase and saying that paid EMS personnel respond to 70 percent to 75 percent of the county's emergency calls.

Cain disputed the percentage, saying that Hedgesville volunteers responded to 79 calls in January, which was 75 percent of the calls received.

Hall acknowledged that the percentage could be skewed, saying a paid EMT or paramedic would receive credit for answering a call, even if he or she was providing medical care in the back of a volunteer squad's ambulance.

Overall, Hall has proposed a revision to the way volunteers serve. He said he believes volunteers should schedule in advance the hours that they will be available to answer calls, rather than responding to miscellaneous calls at all hours of the day.

Such a system might help eliminate complaints about a recent requirement that all volunteers answer at least two calls a month and be at their station for at least four hours a month, or risk losing their certification, he said.

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