When you call 911 for an ambulance in St. Mary’s County, the responders are volunteers. More people need to understand that, the county commissioners were told Tuesday as part of a report on the strengths and weaknesses of local emergency medical services.
Dr. Richard Alcorta, the state medical director of emergency medical services, presented the report, which was the result of 17 months of meetings with members of the fire and rescue community and county government agencies.
The group sought solutions to meet three goals: To promote the longevity of the volunteer rescue system, to develop performance standards for basic life support and to develop performance standards for advanced life support.
Of the emergency calls for fire or rescue service, 75 percent are for medical service, Alcorta said. “Very clearly the demand is for EMS,” he said.
Daytime response needs improvement and more daytime volunteers are needed, he said.
Responders should be shared among fire and rescue departments, he said. “Regrettably in St. Mary’s we have silos” where a fire department or rescue squad acts by itself. That’s not a situation unique to St. Mary’s, he said.
There should be a way to identify those who abuse the 911 system, “the frequent fliers,” the report said. Those calls take ambulances away from actual emergencies.
The emergency frequencies scanner will sometimes broadcast 911 ambulance calls for a headache or other minor problems. “There is a 911 tax,” Alcorta said. “Going to the hospital for a medication refill” by way of ambulance, “that’s not appropriate,” he said.
Those just in need of transportation should be referred to case managers in social services, the report said, rather than relying on ambulances that are needed for genuine emergencies.
There should be a countywide response goal, the report said. Basic life support should arrive within 10 minutes of a call and advanced life support should arrive within 14 minutes, 80 percent of the time.
Some rescue squads have better response times than others, though the report did not include actual response times.
The report suggested a countywide leadership structure for rescue squads, with the county commissioners at the top of the organization, and two new county-funded manager positions, to be manned by paramedics.
The county commissioners are responsible for setting the fire and rescue taxes, which are added to property tax bills and provide money for squads to buy new vehicles and equipment.
Volunteer turnover could be reduced by providing child care services to daytime volunteers, providing tax breaks to businesses that allow volunteers to respond from work and providing funding for emergency medical service education, Alcorta said.
Dr. John Roache, the chairman of the St. Mary’s Ambulance Association, said Wednesday one of the most important things for the volunteer community is to continue the position of Bill Smith, the volunteer recruitment and retainment specialist in the county’s office of emergency services and technology. Grant funding for the job ends in 2014.
“We have survived through an awful lot,” Roache said of the volunteer system.
And the volunteer system saves the county taxpayers millions of dollars every year. “Who can afford it not to be?” he said. “It would be staggering.”
But the character of the county is changing, he said, which affects the pool of potential future volunteers. “Our community used to be a county of communities and communities looked after themselves. We no longer have communities anymore,” he said.
The county commissioners made no comments during the meeting Tuesday about the report. “We will take your report under advisement,” said Commission President Jack Russell (D).