Berkeley County’s decision to sink millions into emergency services this year has paid off for many residents in the form of faster response to calls.
But the department still has problems, including the departure of yet another director.
The 80-member department has been plagued by internal problems and high turnover, including four directors and three interim directors since 2014.
When the most recent, Matthew Lindewirth, arrived in October 2016, county officials such as Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman Tommy Newell thought he would bring stability for the department, but in early June, Lindewirth announced he’d be leaving by the end of June.
Shortly after he arrived in Berkeley, Lindewirth raised eyebrows when he requested a $2 million increase to the department’s $6.4 million annual budget, but supporters pointed out that the county had not added any medic units in a decade.
During that time, the population grew by 50,000 residents and EMS call volume increased nearly 60 percent, from about 11,000 calls annually to more than 17,500.
Equipment was outdated and the workforce was unstable, according to officials.
The increased budget provided funding for new positions and four additional ambulances — one 24-hour unit and three “peak” or 12-hour units — to the existing fleet of 11. In addition, three existing units were replaced with new vehicles.
The result? Since Nov. 1, response times have decreased by a minute from the previous average of 11 minutes, 15 seconds, said Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan.
That pleases residents like Jim Walton of Moncks Corner.
“I have a heart condition and it’s a long way to the hospital from here,” he said. “If I ever need medical care, I want to know they will get to me quickly to do what they can.”
In urban areas, response times have improved by nearly three minutes on average, falling from 10 minutes, 15 seconds to 7 minutes, 30 seconds, Callanan said.
While there are no official state or federal standards for response times, the generally accepted industry standard is to answer 90 percent of calls in urban areas with a paramedic on scene within nine minutes, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“Back in January, nearly every day we were not meeting that standard,” Callanan said. Every day since the last two units were put into place in May, response time has been below the standard mark — “substantially below in some cases,” Callanan said.
The same is true for the rural parts of the county, where response times have gone down about 13 percent from 14 minutes to 12 minutes, 15 seconds.
But Councilman Kevin Cox expressed concerns about residents who live in the Cross area in the upper part of the county.
“We should know if we have one station that’s that high and we should be moving our assets to make it more equal,” he said. “It’s really unfair for the citizens of Cross.”
But, he added, “a lot needs to be addressed” within the department.
One of the biggest concerns was that council wasn’t notified when EMS had issues with new software to generate performance analyses and switched back to its previous program, creating a gap in the reporting system.
“I said last year, I was hesitant to double the budget but I went along,” said Councilman Josh Whitley. “EMS is one that gives me heartburn when we write a check the size we did last year and it’s misappropriated, in my estimation. We’ve got problems.”
According to the county, under Lindeworth’s tenure, the department’s training program was improved; its policies and procedures were updated; and the employee vacancy rate dropped from 46 percent to 1 percent.