Dorchester County Emergency Medical Services was named the best in South Carolina, amid a nationwide shortage of volunteers and a decline in rural ambulance programs.
The South Carolina EMS Association named the county's EMS as the medical system of the year this past weekend. They won in the "large system" category which is reserved for departments that take more than 2,000 calls per year.
Dorchester EMS responded to 20,246 calls and transported 12,614 patients in 2018, according to a statement.
The award comes at a time where finding volunteers and support for rural EMS programs has declined.
The National Rural Health Association said in a 2018 report that "dwindling population, losses in the volunteer workforce, and decreased reimbursement threaten continued access to (emergency medical) services. Nearly one-third of rural Emergency Medical Services are in immediate operational jeopardy."
Numerous issues make EMS work unappealing, including long hours, no assistance to pay for more specialized education and rare pay raises.
As a result, emergency services have a high attrition rate, Daniel Patterson, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Post and Courier last year.
“Turnover is universally a problem,” he said.
Director of EMS Doug Warren said he's aware of the declining workforce as a whole. But he has tried to make the Dorchester County force sustainable by increasing workforce quality.
"We are primarily in an urban area and we, thankfully, have a call volume that is manageable," Warren said. "We do a lot of things to attract employees and keep employees."
Warren said the program has done little things such as extending the ambulance cabs and installing mini fridges in them to make EMS workers more comfortable during long shifts.
They also make an effort to recruit from local schools and hope to recruit two young adults over the summer to be apprentices.
Dorchester County EMS officials made several big changes in 2018, one of which increased the potential for saving more lives.
Previously, only 20 percent of patients would have their cardiac activity revived by CPR before arriving to the hospital.
But with an emphasis on high-performance CPR, the department was able to achieve a 50 percent return of spontaneous circulation rate, according to a statement.
In the rural portion of the county, where response time is longer, they achieved a 34 percent rate.
The county's EMS personnel were also put to a reality show-style test.
On March 15, Dorchester County paramedics Mandy Reeves and Justin Wolfe competed against 30 teams in a hypothetical emergency situation. This year it was a hypothetical prison riot.
They had 20 minutes to save injured prisoners as paramedics from across the state watched them compete. Reeves and Wolfe were named the State Paramedic Champions.
"I think the largest thing for me is remembering the ultimate goal, and that is to make an impact positively on every single life that we can," Wolfe said in a statement.
This is the third time that the county's EMS was given the award since becoming a department 25 years ago. They also won in 2005 and 2012.
"To be looked at by your peers as the best of the best is truly an honor," Warren said.