York County officials have abandoned a controversial plan to ask Piedmont Medical Center to dispatch ambulances for the county, including non-profit rescue squads which compete with the for-profit hospital for customers.
The plan would have ended the countys existing dispatch system, which sends two ambulances to emergency calls, leading to potentially dangerous competition, county leaders and state officials have said.
The county hopes to have a new dispatch system in place by September, said County Manager Jim Baker. That system will use GPS to locate ambulances so that dispatchers can identify which one is closest to a call and dispatch it.
The changes come after officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates ambulances, heard complaints about the rescue squads competing and told the county, already aware of the issue, to seek a swift remedy.
The county currently relies on dual dispatch because it doesnt have the technology to pinpoint the location of every ambulance.
When a call goes out, Piedmont, which has GPS technology on its units, sends an ambulance to the scene. Likewise, a non-profit rescue squad unit in the area will also respond. Whoever arrives on scene first provides services while the other turns back.
Having Piedmont take over dispatch for the county, using its GPS technology to pinpoint all ambulances and only send out the closest, would have provided a temporary solution.
Anna Moore, assistant York County manager, said concerns expressed by the countys non-profit rescue squads ultimately led the county to abandon the plan.
They were concerned that there might not be an equal playing field, she said.
Rescue squad leaders said they had concerns about whether taking directions from Piedmonts dispatchers would be fair to them, given that theyre often competing for the same customers.
Moore said the relationship between Piedmont and other rescue services has always been challenging, and the county decided not to exacerbate the situation.
County officials kept DHEC informed about their plans and the rescue squads response. Because the county committed to purchasing new dispatch software, DHEC officials didnt push the county to pursue the temporary solution, Moore said.
To address the competition, The county staff met with Piedmont, as well as the other ambulance providers and had a frank discussion with them about the safety issues, she said.
The result was all parties agreed to focus on responding to calls in a manner that is safe for all involved until the county implements its new system.
Tim McMichael, assistant director of Fort Mill Rescue, said he is happy with the countys decision.
The county moving into taking over the dispatch system was probably only appropriate from the start, McMichael said. Im very pleased with that decision.
Rescue squads are bracing for other changes coming in the form of contract agreements that will affect their ability to continue operating.
The county already contracts with Piedmont for rescue services, but rescue squads have been working without a contract since their inception.
In the Fort Mill and Lake Wylie areas, the county rescue squads have grown from all-volunteer to crews that now have multiple ambulances, some full-time paid employees and scores of volunteers. The county also has a part-time squad in York, a volunteer unit in Clover, and a Rock Hill squad that specializes in water and vehicle rescues and doesnt run an ambulance or transport patients.
With growth of the rescue squads, the county has been looking at ways to standardize emergency services across the county.
The county met with rescue squad leaders, including McMichael and Dick Mann, director of River Hills Rescue, in March and then again last week to discuss the contract.
Both said they are eager to enter contracts with the county, but have concerns about how some of the countys proposals will affect the rescue squads and whether the requirements are consistent with state standards.
They recently said the proposal the county offered them this month didnt incorporate many of their concerns and seems too restrictive.
For example, they said they are not happy with a proposal requiring every ambulance to have more than one certified emergency medical professional at all times.
That requirement is more restrictive than what the state requires, they say, and might exclude some volunteers who serve in other capacities. Those volunteers, they argue, are central to the rescue squads mission and have contributed to providing quality services for many years.
Mann said he worries that with some changes the rescue squads will lose their ability to manage themselves, which has served them well so far.
Mann also said he wants to see a contract that provides fair and equitable service to all York County residents, treats the rescue squads fairly, and provides standards consistent with the states.
Baker said the county is still working on the contract details.
Baker empathized with concerns about volunteers, but said the countys goal is to create the same level of standards for all emergency service providers, he said.
When you have multiple entities...its always a challenge to get everybody on the same page, he said.