By Thomas Grant Jr.
For Chapin resident and retired nurse Heather Burkhart, seeing timely and efficient emergency service is a top priority.
It all started in 2022 when she heard concerns expressed about the unavailability of a timely ambulance in her community to respond to calls for people with life-threatening symptoms.
Burkett proceeded to start her research about emergency medical/paramedic service in Chapin. After the initial date she received showed long waits for ambulances not just in Chapin, but most of Lexington County, she decided to expand her research.
This brought Burkhart in contact with other advocates, which included three nurses, a former EMT, strategist, a school psychologist, and a retired principal, to address the issue. Working together, Lexington County Ambulance Response Solutions was born.
With the goal of having community members working together to identify and communicate solutions on improving emergency response times, the group set up a Facebook page where citizens can express their concerns and get updates on the recent developments with Lexington County Council.
“We started a post on Facebook for people concerned about the late response to life-threatening symptoms,” Burkhart said. “We saw 10 different stories. One of them was someone who waited 45 minutes to get treated for a broken hip. She was in Chapin.”
According to Burkhart, the first LCARS meeting in April at Timberlake Country Club drew 130 people. Among the concerns expressed were:
-The length of time for a paramedic to reach a county resident.
-The lack of an ambulance truck at Station 22 in Chapin
– A shortage of paramedic and EMTs in the county.
– More troubling stories about EMS service.
Burkhart saw salary is a major impediment for Lexington County EMS. She obtained a copy of the County Budget which showed Lexington pays its workers $46,378 year while handling 60,000 calls.
This is lower than nearby counties like Berkeley ($65,206/year with a call volume of 20,000) and Richland ($53,205/year with a call volume of 74,000), according to Burkett.
She also said the budget showed EMS requesting a 20 percent raise, indicating that it was understaffed and underpaid.
“Our concern is that Lexington County is not taking steps to improve the number of EMS workers in the county,” Burkett said. “They have 20 or more openings. They’re not raising their salaries to attract more people. The jobs are not even listed on the county website.”
LCARS brought forth their grievances during a Sept. 12 County community meeting. It was during that time that South Carolina EMS Chief Brian Hood made a 55-minute presentation which looked to address those concerns.
He opened by stating that Lexington County EMS, which started in 1974 with 16 employees and five ambulance trucks, was now at a “crossroads” in a post-COVID 19 period. Just like emergency rooms, Hood said it is dealing with the challenges of dealing with higher call volumes for what he considered are “lesser emergencies.”
The end result is increased job turnover due to job dissatisfaction related to burnout, increased stress and feeling unappreciated and being taken advantage of by the patients they serve.
Hand said that funding cannot keep up with the increased call volumes and the ability to hand them using the traditional mindset. Based on the call volume, he believes 75 ambulance trucks would be needed to meet those needs which he believes is unrealistic.
In addition, South Carolina graduated fewer than 150 new paramedics last year which does not meet the attrition level. The SCEMS confirmed they are hiring in all 46 counties and Hood said Lexington County is currently looking to fill 18 vacancies.
To meet those shortages, Lexington County EMS has continued to allow candidates to work for a salary while also covering their tuition with the yearlong paramedic program. Hood said no other EMS in South Carolina undertakes this endeavor and this has resulted in a 100 percent graduate rate as they move from operations to the training bureau.
This prompted county member Scotty Whetstone to remark that this showed they are going “way above and beyond” in improving EMS. Council member Beth Carigg remarked “unfortunately, that group of people aren’t going to be happy with any answer we give to anything.”
Carigg also said council members should not answer what she believed are “redundant questions”. In was in reference to a series of questions Burkhart sent to County Administrator Lynn Sturkie for a response from council members.
Burkhart said in response after the meeting the “redundant questions” were because they were still waiting for the answers.
The County Council also brought up the pay comparison with larger county Greenville, which was listed at $35,297 for paramedic positions, lower than Lexington County.
Hood also stated in his report that since 2010, EMS has implements steps to put in place strategies to “work smarter and not harder”. This included by 2016 categorizing those calls through a tiered system to separate emergency calls from non-emergency calls.
The latter would be transferred to a private service entity paid by Lexington County which could fulfill the same duties though cost scheduling and more extended response time goals where time is not a significant factor in the overall outcome.
Phase One of the plan was implemented last December, followed by Phase Two in July. It was announced at the meeting that Lexington County EMS was awarded for its work in removing the non-acuity calls with the private service contract.
LCARS has scheduled a Sept. 25 community meeting for Lexington County residents at Timberlake Country Club in Chapin starting at 7 p.m.