JEMS.com Editor’s Note: Click here to read A.J. Heightman’s take on this issue.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Some Columbia firefighters tell WIS News 10 a Richland County EMS policy is making it harder for them to help in emergencies because it does not allow firefighters inside ambulances.
When we started investigating this policy, Richland County EMS told us it did not want firefighters inside ambulances they were not trained to operate.
EMS also spoke to a woman whose husband’s death had firefighters asking questions about the policy. Soon, we’d start asking questions.
But before we ever spoke to that patient’s wife, EMS told her we were investigating and then assured her they’d done all they could to save her husband’s life.
So we’re finding out why some firefighters disagree, and what they say they’d be willing to do just for a chance to help.
Seconds count for George Myers. He’s short of breath, and about to go into cardiac arrest. His wife Mary calls for an ambulance.
Columbia firefighters show up, then Richland County EMS. Myers is still breathing, but not for long.
“It seemed like it was taking a long time before they cranked up and pulled off,” says Mary.
Mary Myers watches. Saving her husband’s life now becomes a battle against time — and EMS still hasn’t left for the hospital.
“I said, ‘what are you doing? Why are you not leaving?” Myers described to WIS News 10.
Myers would have to wait even longer. When a piece of equipment didn’t fit on her husband, firefighters offered to help out and start heading to the hospital. But they say EMS told them no, instead calling for another ambulance.
“I don’t know how long it took, but it seemed like forever,” Myers says.
Columbia firefighters say EMS backup was nearly ten miles away. When Myers finally got to the hospital, doctors told his wife he was dead.
The Myers case is just one of several listed in the study done by Columbia firefighters. WIS first released the report’s findings Thursday.
Inside, concerned firefighters, say patients in Richland County aren’t getting adequate care when transportation to the hospital is delayed.
The study does not draw any clear link between the delays and patient deaths.
It does however, criticize a Richland County EMS policy requiring paramedics to call for a backup ambulance, even though Columbia Fire is on scene.
That’s because the policy doesn’t allow firefighters to help EMS inside ambulances or drive them to the hospital.
“Firefighters did it good naturally, to offer assistance,” says Columbia Deputy Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins.
Jenkins says he supports the firefighters who compiled the study. As for the EMS policy?
“I’m not saying whether I agree or disagree. All I’m saying is I have to respect any policy, whether EMS or police, the same way I expect them to respect policy we have in place,” Jenkins told WIS News 10.
But at least some of Jenkins’ firefighters want the policy changed. They’re also willing to take on any additional training to help.
“If there’s something we can work out, we’ll work it out,” says Jenkins.
Since we started this investigation late last year, city and county officials got together to take a closer look at the issue.
But Richland County Administrator Milton Pope told us just this week that there’s no plan to change what he calls a “most prudent policy.”
We’ve received varying opinions on that since we first told you about the policy.
JW writes, “I am extremely upset that you would imply that waiting on a back-up contributed to a man’s death. Do you realize the liability of having minimally trained people do patient care or to drive an ambulance with personnel in the rear of the unit is?”
KB disagrees, writing, “I think it’s ridiculous that firefighters are not allowed to help. I thought that’s what they were trained for.”
We’ve actually heard from lots of firefighters in surrounding areas. One says, “I was a volunteer EMT/firefighter in Lexington County for 12 years. This is all political and the first time someone sues the county that will change.”
The policy, and our story on the matter, have grabbed national attention. After reading our story, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services wrote in an editorial, “I’m appalled at the policy and attitudes presented by Richland County EMS.”
And don’t forget, all surrounding Midlands counties allow firefighters to ride ambulances.
Next week we’ll visit one of those counties to see how it’s done — and whether combining services is truly the best policy.