The South Boston Fire Department sometimes has multiple Emergency Medical Services (EMS) calls at the same time. That becomes an issue with not enough staff or ambulances to respond to all of the calls, South Boston Fire Chief Steve Phillips told South Boston Town Council members in a Monday evening work session.
“One of the problems countywide is staffing ambulances,” Phillips said. “Sometimes we’ll have multiple calls in one day. We only have one fully-staffed ambulance in Halifax County on any given day, and it becomes a staffing issue.”
Phillips gave council a full report on the fire department’s EMS transport and cost at Monday’s meeting. He shared that the department responded to 2,018 calls in 2019 and received an average of 5.6 EMS calls per day.
Mayor Edward “Ed” Owens asked Phillips how many of the EMS calls the South Boston Fire Department responded to last year were within the town limits. Phillips said approximately 75% of those calls were in the South Boston town limits.
Phillips also explained the type of services that his department’s staff provides when responding to calls.
“We respond to all emergency medical calls as first responders to assist the ambulance or provide care until the ambulance arrives,” Phillips said. “The ambulance transports the patient to the hospital, and our personnel leave the call.”
The fire chief added that his first responders cannot leave a patient at the scene of an EMS call until the ambulance arrive on the scene, and staying with a patient on an EMS call potentially ties up staff from responding to fire calls.
With the new addition to the fire department building on Broad Street, which is nearing completion, Phillips said accommodations could be made to house an ambulance and additional personnel, which he sees as being crucial to the department providing needed EMS services to citizens and recouping the cost of those services, as well. He said the department would need five medics and four Emergency Medical Technician-Basic’s to staff one ambulance, at an additional personnel cost of $435,344 annually.
Phillips also explained that as first responders, the fire department is not able to recover the cost of EMS services. With an ambulance, services provided can be billed to the insurance company due to patient transport, the fire chief explained. Even then, he said only a percentage of the cost is recovered.
“Having ambulances allows you to provide a service to your citizens and try to recover those costs as much as you can,” Phillips said.
Eventually, Phillips said, local governments would have to play a major role in providing EMS services and allocate funding for more paid EMS staff to provide those services rather than relying partially on volunteer staff for those services. Currently, the South Boston Fire Department has both paid and volunteer staff members, and the volunteer fire departments throughout Halifax County rely heavily on volunteers to provide EMS services. Many fire department volunteers work full-time jobs during the day and are unable to respond to calls that come in during regular business hours because of that, Phillips noted.
Phillips also detailed costs of EMS equipment. He estimated the cost of an ambulance at $225,000, a load system and stretcher at $40,000 and a heart monitor at $35,000. He told council grant opportunities are available to assist with EMS equipment costs. Most grant awards are 80/20, with the grant paying for 80% of costs and the town responsible for the other 20% of the costs, Phillips explained.
Vice-mayor Bob Hughes commended Phillips for the service that his department provides.
“The ambulance service may not be a moneymaker, unless it (the service) is needed. Then it’s priceless,” Hughes said.