County leaders acknowledge EMS critical condition

Clarion County Director of Emergency Services Jeff Smathers, left, and Clarion County Commissioner Ed Heasley discuss possible solutions to the EMS crisis facing the county.

CLARION - "We are all in a critical situation," said Clarion County Commissioner Ed Heasley Nov. 15.

That critical situation is the dwindling number of ambulance personnel and ambulance services especially in rural areas.

"We must work together so the residents and visitors to Clarion County don't receive the message "We will send the next available unit' during an emergency call," Heasley said.

But that is exactly what happened for two months last summer.

"During those two months we were uncovered more than we were covered," said Steve Merryman of Shippenville Ambulance Service.

Jeff Smathers, Clarion County's Director of Emergency Services, said that when a call for an ambulance is received the call is directed to the nearest ambulance service.

"If that service can't crew, then the call is directed to another service," Smathers explained.

Smathers said that there are five services in the county but in reality only four are usually available and sometimes only three to cover the entire county.

Smathers said when an ambulance is on a call outside of their own service area it creates a vacuum.

"There were six times last year when every ambulance was committed," Smathers recalled. "When that happens we have to pull from another county. They have the same problem. That creates a void there and they are reluctant to uncover their own county. They do send them however. Of course we do the same for them.

Smathers said it is a "collective" problem. He said it is difficult to attract emergency medical technicians because the pay in rural areas does not compare to the rate paid in urban areas.

Smathers said the second problem is the reimbursement rate for an ambulance call is limited.

"They could make a call and bill Medicare $1,200 and get reimbursed just $200," Smathers said, noting private insurers pay more but there are few of them in the area.

Merryman said the Shippenville service increased the pay rate for its EMTs to $12.50 an hour and the rate for paramedics from $13 an hour to $16 just to get crews.

Heasley, a firefighter for many years, said that to provide a full-time, 24/7 crew and equipment, would cost approximately $400,000 - $500,000 per year, per unit.

Merryman said that to compound the problem the ambulance services must also pay their own workmen's compensation insurance.

Smathers said many of the EMTs and paramedics work 24-hour shifts, which allows them to work for more than one service.

"In the end they get burned out," he said.

Clarion County has entered into an agreement with the state Department of Community and Economic development to conduct a study of the need for both emergency medical and fires services. The survey is at no cost to the county.

The county also formed the Clarion County Emergency Medical Service Task Force to work with municipal governments with a goal of finding a solution to the crisis.

"The issues we are facing within Clarion County are not just local but something that is hitting the entire commonwealth," said Heasley. "We must build a partnership to address the current problems and challenges facing us today."

Potential remedies

There are several short-term remedies and the possibility of a long-term fix. There may be relief at the local level.

"Every municipality is responsible for providing fire and EMS protection," said Smathers. "The county cannot do this."

Smathers said Pennsylvania Acts 7, 8 and 9 mandate the municipality shall be responsible for ensuring that fire and EMS are provided to the extent determined by the municipality, including financial and administrative assistance for the services.

Often that support takes the shape of a financial donation.

Karen Best, secretary for Licking and Piney townships said the service does not ask for a set amount of money.

"They need to have their ducks in a row when they come to the township and ask for money," Best said. "We might think we are doing something great when we give them a thousand dollars when they probably think we are being cheap. They need to communicate with us."

Many of the townships that do not have a service within their boundaries will have a memorandum of agreement with a nearby service.

Smathers said the townships could authorize an EMS tax.

Merryman said money generated from that tax would not be sufficient.

"The tax is on the same people who are already paying," he said. "We increased the pay for the EMTs and paramedics just to get them to stay with us. We knew we would be going another $10,000 in the hole every year."

Long-term aid may come from the state.

Heasley said there are two bills under consideration in the Pennsylvania Legislature. House Bill 1322 would allow an optional sales tax for property relief and municipal assistance.

"By levying a 1 percent sales tax as a tool to improve core services that are beneficial to our communities we would help police, firefighters, EMS, public works and administrative services," said Heasley.

Heasley said the potential problem would be that the money raised by the new levy would be sent to Harrisburg and then disbursed to the local agencies.

"Harrisburg would assess an administrative fee and we have no idea how large that fee would be," said Heasley. "That would mean less money sent back to the agencies that really need the money."

The second bill is Senate Bill 698. Heasley said this bill would allow for the creation of public safety authorities like water authorities.

"The municipality would step up and work with their local providers," said Heasley.

Smathers said that Rep. Donna Oberlander and Sen. Scott Hutchinson have indicated support for the bills.

Smathers said local education centers are helping.

"Clarion County Career Center and Clarion University have stepped up to bat," he said. "The Career Center is excited about it and the university has set up a feeder program. We hope that if kids get excited about EMS or firefighting they might continue after graduation."

The task force will meet again at 3 p.m. Dec. 27 in the Clarion County Administration building in Clarion.

"It will take everyone to figure this out," said Heasley.

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