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Government owned ambulance station back on the table in Erwin

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Sep 20, 2017 at 11:53 PM

ERWIN — Recurring delays in response times for ambulance calls in Unicoi County has put the idea of a county-run ambulance service back up for discussion.

In a meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee on Wednesday, committee members agreed to take a proposal to begin exploring property available for construction of a county-owned ambulance station to the full commission on Monday.

The property purchase and construction of a station were discussed as needed steps toward improving service for the community enduring long wait times and dependence on assistance from ambulance services in neighboring counties.

Long wait times, staff shortages and the lack of enough ambulances to meet the terms of the county’s emergency medical service contract with MedicOne Medical Response have been recurring problems in the county for more than a year and in August 2016 resulted in the creation of a community task force to address the issues.

As violations of the MedicOne contract continued over the next several months, committee-level discussion of what action to take against the company accelerated and appeared to be headed for a showdown before the full county commission when a change in MedicOne local management resolved several of the underlying issues.

Jimmy Erwin, a 17-year veteran and ranking officer with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, was hired as MedicOne’s operations manager in the county.

Under Erwin’s leadership, MedicOne’s local fleet of ambulances was quickly brought up to the level required by the county contract. MedicOne’s station was moved from a site that had been loaned to the company by county Mayor Greg Lynch to more spacious private home on North Main with more accommodating living quarters for the staff. And with a full fleet of ambulances, medical response times improved.

While county leaders continued to express their appreciation for Erwin’s leadership on Wednesday, the recent recurrence of delayed response times that Erwin attributed to a shortage of trained emergency medical technicians and paramedics caused the committee to initiate further action.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, who brought the violations of MedicOne’s contract with the county and the resulting violations of the county’s emergency medical service contract with the town to light more than a year ago, said Wednesday it was her understanding there were seven calls for hospital transports within a three-week period for which no MedicOne ambulances were available.

Erwin said the problem was not the availability of ambulances but the lack of staff to man ambulances that is reducing the fleet to one ambulance for a two- to six-hour period every day. He said the shortage will improve with the addition of one new staff member on Friday and resolved by the two to four new staff members within the next two weeks.

To his knowledge, Ewrin said there have been only two recent instances in which ambulances from Washington County were called to assist Unicoi County. And while the wait times for hospital transport have been up to four hours, all calls have been answered.

Erwin attributed the lack of staff to a profession-wide shortage of EMTs and paramedics, Tennessee greater training requirements and more stringent regulation of out-of-state license transfers, and better pay and benefits offered by emergency medical services in other area counties.

Erwin also noted that the county’s ambulance call volume had increased dramatically up to 353 calls last month compared to 187 calls in February.

Expressing frustration with the recurring lack of service, Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson told the committee members “My concern is we have been negotiating with MedicOne for two years and absolutely nothing has changed. Nothing personal to Jimmy but we’re short again and we’re looking at two to three weeks that that might be lowered.”

County Commissioner Gene Wilson said, “I think it’s time. We’ve been discussing this for more than a year and we’ve done nothing. The county is in better shape than its ever been. And I think it’s time now to buy some land and build a building. We have some options on land. I’d vote for it today.”

Committee Chairman Jason Harris suggested the possibility of a land donation for the ambulance station should also be considered and said the next step would be to take the land acquisition proposal to a vote before the full commission.

Harris said he would also like the full commission’s direction on its desire to take over operations of the ambulance service in the future.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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