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Commentary: Charleston County EMS faces 'life and death' situation

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Don Lundy (copy)

Don Lundy


My thanks to Steve Bailey for his excellent Nov. 28 column on high turnover, a critical shortage of paramedics and the new way the Charleston County EMS is organized. The apparent free fall of what was once the pride of Charleston County is worrisome.

Let’s be clear: The men and women who work for the county Emergency Medical Services are the best of the best. They don’t do it to become rich or famous. It is a calling for them, one that they take seriously. I loved each of them while I was there and still do today. They certainly are due more respect than they are receiving from their employer.

In 2010, we earned the National EMS System of the Year award, the highest honor in this business. That was accomplished through the hard work of the crews and staff. The policies for both patient care and workplace safety resulted in one team on a mission to make Charleston County EMS the best.

The same is not true of the new policies. Telling the citizens that “it doesn’t change the level of service whether there is a paramedic on board or not” is disingenuous at best. A paramedic has the training and equipment necessary to treat the complicated medical problems we see on an everyday basis. EMTs are fantastic, but they do not have that level of training.

Also, unlike police or fire, EMS must leave its service area to get a patient to the hospital. There is no way around that, and staffing more ambulances is unsustainable.

How can we start to fix this? Placing non-transport, paramedic-staffed quick response vehicles on the islands — which would remain there after a call since they do not transport — would place paramedic personnel and their equipment at the patient’s side quicker and easier. When the patient is given to the responding ambulance for transport, this paramedic-equipped vehicle remains in its district.

Having ambulances meet in one central location eliminates the operational idea of placing ambulances in a district. By removing substations as the primary starting point for EMS in the community, ambulances are reduced to driving to a central location and spending more of their time and our money driving out to their district. Such a deployment strategy wastes fuel and time.

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Policy dictates that uniforms soiled by bodily fluids be removed. Employees must shower to ensure they are not contaminated. Where will they do that?

I agree that the county cannot have a misstep. Its leaders have to get this right. Actually, they had it right from the moment Charleston County EMS started in 1974. There can be disagreements and small items that cause issues, but when your medical director resigns, that is an ominous sign of something more serious.

Let’s not forget the two most serious issues: one death that officials ruled a homicide and is under investigation, and another in which the city and the county paid out a financial settlement to a DUI suspect’s family.

It is no wonder that we are having problems filling positions. Elected officials’ attempts to micromanage something they don’t understand is only going to make that problem worse and possibly endanger lives.

I worked with the men and women of EMS for more than 14 years, and they are amazing people. Perhaps the crews themselves have solutions to these problems, but no one is listening. We must demand better service from our elected officials.

This is not a blundering purchase of a dilapidated hospital we can’t use. This is truly a life-and-death situation.

Don Lundy, a paramedic for 45 years, was chief of Charleston County EMS for 14 years. He was dismissed by the county in 2015 after writing a book about his experiences working in EMS.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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