News 12 Investigation: Shedding light on Aiken County EMS

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013

Aiken County EMS

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- We won't show his face, give his name, or even air his true voice.

"You could lose your jobs over this interview?" asks News 12's Chad Mills.

"Yes, I could," answers the current Aiken County EMS worker in a sit-down interview with News 12. "We should have a lot better coverage. There's no excuse."

But this EMS worker believes he has an important story to tell, a conscience to clear, and he wants everyone to know what he says is going on behind the doors of Aiken County EMS.

"Most people coming in off the street can't stand it," he says of his employer.

This worker says Paramedics and EMTs are continuing to leave Aiken County for other ambulance services in neighboring counties.

In 2006, a similar exodus made headlines.

"Despite a recent raise, 18 percent of Aiken County EMS workers quit last year," News 12 reported in 2006.

Recently, that number has proven to be greater. In FY2013, Aiken County EMS saw a 34 percent turnover rate, according to Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian.

The worker we interviewed has seen that trend.

"I can sit here and say that I know, in the past year to two years, we've lost at least two or three good medics, we've lost several good intermediates, and again, we've had basics come in like a revolving door," he says.

While he points to a number of factors, he says the main reason is low pay.

"I believe that Saluda makes between $4,000 and $6,000 more a year starting out. McCormick is at least $1,500 to at least $2,000 more a year, and that's just, again, starting," he tells News 12.

Research show that even paramedics and EMTs in Allendale County are paid more. Allendale County has a FY2012 General Fund Budget of only $7,000,304, compared to $52,359,442 in Aiken County.

Then, there's Williston Rescue Squad, a private service that currently covers Barnwell County. Pay is so good there that 15 current workers at the Rescue Squad previously worked for Aiken County EMS, according to Operations Manager Phil Clarke.

In Aiken County, Basic EMTs start at $27,551.49 per year, Intermediate EMTs start at $30,793.84 per year, and Paramedics start at $33,862.37 per year. At Williston Rescue Squad, Basic EMTs start at $36,080 per year, Intermediate EMTs start at $39,000 per year, and Paramedics start at $42,640 per year.

Multiple sources tell News 12 that Aiken County EMS is so short-staffed that some stations aren't even open on a daily basis, and when that happens, the worker we interviewed says response times become longer and puts anyone in danger who lives, works or visits Aiken County.

"Have lives been lost due to response times?" asks Mills.

"I feel like they probably have," he says.

Generally, a common formula many ambulance services use is one ambulance for every 10,000 people. To the north, Edgefield County passes that test with three ambulances available for 26,000 people. To the south, Barnwell County does too with four for just 22,000 people. Then there's Aiken County, a county larger in area than both Edgefield and Barnwell Counties combined, where the the county owns just 10 ambulances for roughly 162,812. Given that population size, the formula says there should really be 16.

While a number of private services (Capital City, South Star, etc.) and nonprofits (Aiken Rescue) have franchise agreements with Aiken County EMS, our source says limited ambulances is still a problem. He says response times can sometimes be slow, as ambulances often must travel far distances to respond to scenes of emergencies.

"If I can physically take myself to the hospital, I'm not calling 911. Period. And that's not just this county. That's any county," he says.

But in this county, he says a lot of equipment is subpar. Even though the county plans to soon replace four ambulances, he says there's still some ambulances on the road that would be unacceptable in other places, including one with 400,000 plus miles.

"If [the Department of Health and Environmental Control] knew that every other shift we're having to get the AC's repaired on our units. We had an ambulance breakdown on scene with a patient in the back," the EMS worker admits. "You don't feel like you should have to work in that environment."

Our source, along with several other works, says oftentimes ambulances don't have working air-conditioning units, even when there's a patient in the back. Air-conditioning, along with many other things, are regulated by DHEC code.

The worker estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his co-workers don't like their management. In particular, he says many workers don't like Aiken County EMS Coordinator Harvey Jay.

"Honestly, I don't think it's his demeanor because he is a pleasant person to be around, for the most part," he says. "It's just the way he runs things. It's his policies. Harvey Jay has all the experience in the world. He's been with Aiken EMS for 30 plus years, and I think that's part of the problem."

But this worker doesn't blame Jay. He blames Aiken County Council, who he claims fails to do enough.

"You've been told you have a problem repeatedly not only by the news, not only by your citizens, but by your employees," the worker says to council. "Could that mean the difference between someone dying and not? Yes. It could."

According to the county, in FY 2013-2014, Aiken County EMS requested $8,029,996 but got 5,239,528 in council's passed budget. Records from 2008 until now show that Aiken County Council has never funded Aiken County EMS the full amount it has requested.

The worker News 12 talked to in person is not the only one who has contacted the newsroom. Multiple others have approached News 12 with similar concerns. In fact, an email that surfaced just days ago that was sent to County Council points out many similar complaints.

"I am disgruntled at the fact that the county I live in and would rather work for, serving my neighbors in my backyard, has degraded to the point that many employees are leaving for better opportunities," writes former Aiken County EMS Paramedic Jason Bayne.

In an email response to Bayne, County Administrator Killian responded to Bayne. He mentioned that he met personally with staff at EMS headquarters just last week.

"Let me assure you," writes Killian, "we are taking their comments very seriously and recognize we are at a very critical juncture with EMS."

Killian has confirmed this information to News 12. He said neither he nor Harvey Jay would currently do an interview with News 12, but he says they are looking into the matter, and they're treating it very seriously.

Nevertheless, many of the workers who've contacted News 12 don't have their hopes up.

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