Rescue Crews Stand Down

New EMS chief has safety concerns on volunteer agency


| Friday, July 18, 2008

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. -- In the next four to six weeks, the director of Orange County Emergency Management Services and others will conduct an assessment of the Orange County Rescue Squad to determine whether the volunteer agency will be able to continue to assist other local fire departments and emergency medical personnel.

For the time being, however, Col. Frank Montes de Oca, who began working as the new director of the Orange County Emergency Management Services three months ago, has put the rescue squad on stand down because of reports that members of the squad have sometimes been careless and reckless at accident scenes.

"I heard some pretty disturbing stories, about lack of safety, lack of professionalism and strange behavior at the station,' Montes de Oca said Wednesday.

The 911 dispatch center has been ordered not to dispatch the Orange County Rescue Squad to any incidents.

Before the stand down order, the squad, located in downtown Hillsborough, was dispatched through the 911 system to scenes, usually vehicle wrecks, in which someone was entrapped. They used specialized equipment to cut into the vehicles or used the Jaws of Life to open up doors that have been crushed shut to extricate the victim from the vehicle.

Some of the stories Montes de Oca heard, and later confirmed, he said, included members operating in dangerous conditions without wearing protective gear. In one case, he said he heard of squad members using cutting equipment that caused sparks while they were standing in gasoline at an accident scene.

He also heard of incidents of members cutting tree limbs and allowing them to drop on top of cars while victims and emergency personnel were still inside of them and reports of the volunteers driving too fast on narrow roads, he said.

In one instance, witnessed by an emergency medical professional, the rescue squad truck left a scene with its doors unsecured. The doors fell open and equipment spilled all over the roadway, Montes De Oca said. They both had to stop to pick up the equipment, causing a traffic hazard and a delay in getting to the next call, Montes de Oca said.

"It was kind of dangerous," he said.

The people who told Montes De Oca about the problems included members of fire departments and other emergency personnel as well as some insiders -- members of the rescue squad itself, he said.

A message left at the Hillsborough Police Department, where Brian Matthews, chief of the rescue squad is an officer and was said to be on duty Wednesday, was not returned.

Orange Countyis served by a variety of emergency providers, both professional and volunteer. Towns like Chapel Hill and Carrboro have their own fire departments with paid personnel and they have the equipment and training to extricate people after vehicle accidents.

In the rural areas, volunteers staff most of the fire departments, and some of them have the extrication equipment, but some do not. In the eight fire districts of Orange County, six districts have extrication equipment and training, he said.

Mutual aid

In southern Orange County, the South Orange Rescue Squad, another volunteer organization that is a separate agency from the Orange County Rescue Squad, specializes in swift water rescue and high angle rope rescue.

"South Orange provides excellent EMS technical rescue, is managed well and I have no cause to look at it," Montes De Oca said

During the initial assessment of the services the rescue squad provided, Montes de Oca worked with his staff and talked to other fire departments, including some in Alamance County, to work out a mutual aid agreement so that if extrication services are needed, that would normally been provided by the rescue squad, other departments will fill in, he said.

"We made sure that everybody would help each other out if needed," he said.

Montes de Oca met with Matthews and talked about how to create an assessment process. It will take about four to six weeks for the assessment to be made to determine what the squad's capabilities are.

The assessment group will look at the squad's training records to determine whether they've trained properly for regular and well as heavy equipment rescue events.

The assessment group also will look at whether services are being duplicated by different agencies and whether that is costing taxpayers more than they need to spend.

Montes de Oca said he'll make a final decision on the county's relationship, if any, with the squad in the future.

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