I-TEAM: Status Zero ... What we know about Aiken County’s EMS crisis
AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - The weight of COVID-19 is exposing cracks in fragile EMS systems across the country. Staffing shortages are exasperated by emergency responders exposed to the virus and in quarantine. Meanwhile, able-bodied ambulance crews are tied up for longer periods of time outside of hospitals waiting on beds to open for their patients. However, the struggle to respond to calls in Aiken County began long before the pandemic.
Status Zero is the code for dispatchers use when there are no available ambulances to respond to a call. Aiken County went to Status Zero more than a hundred times over the last 5 months, leaving some citizens waiting hours for help.
Glenn Poole knows what it takes to survive. He’s kept the Hollow Creek fire department alive on a near-to-nothing budget for decades. He is fighting now to keep himself alive.
The chief only remembers the hours before his seizure on May 28.
“My eyes started turning and my head started moving back and forth, and then I fell over and stopped breathing,” Poole said.
Doctors would find the tumor in his brain days later.
“I said, ‘Where am I at?’ She said, ‘You are in the hospital.’ ‘What for?’ She started telling me about a seizure. I don’t remember nothing.”
The I-Team obtained documents and calls which tell a story of a life nearly lost and a county in crisis.
Traffic chatter on Poole’s seizure helps paint the picture of that night.
“1920 Aiken: Send first responders out. I need a medic,” the first responder said.
“10-4. Standby. We have another call,” dispatch responded.
On the day of Poole’s seizure, Aiken County EMS went to Status Zero.
Dispatch sent Southstar Emergency Medical Services. Southstar is the private ambulance service contracted with the Aiken County to respond to calls when county ambulances are busy.
“It took over two and half hours for them to get me to the hospital,” Poole said.
Two hours and 29 minutes to be exact, according to the report. It takes 53 minutes for the Southstar ambulance just to get to Poole and then a tire on the ambulance blew. It takes another hour and 6 minutes to get another ambulance from another county to get him to the hospital.
“You have what you call the golden hour -- we are all taught that and have been taught that for years. Basically, that’s from the time you have the incident to the time you get to the hospital. That one hour is that key. Getting there in that first hour can make a difference between life and death,” New Holland Fire Chief Dennis Jackson said.
But what’s the state of EMS in Aiken County?
“Right now? It is kind of scary,” Jackson said. “A lot of times they go Status Zero and Status Zero means there is not an ambulance available in Aiken County.”
Remember Aiken County went Status Zero on the day Poole had his seizure. Poole didn’t need EMS on a busy day. He needed EMS on what we found is a typical day in Aiken County.
The I-Team tracked four months' worth of data from Aiken County EMS. The county went to Status Zero 118 times in 123 days.
Out of that, there were 160 pending calls -- people -- waiting for an ambulance when there is no ambulance around.
“Status Zero is absolutely unacceptable,” South Carolina House District 86 Rep. Bill Taylor said. “It’s a problem. It’s a deadly problem.”
Taylor’s district covers more than half of Aiken County, which includes Windsor.
On June 29, this call came into Aiken County dispatch from Chantilly Road in Windsor:
Dispatch: “Aiken County 911.”
Caller: “Yes, ma’am, I need an ambulance.”
Dispatch “For what?”
Caller: “I think my husband has had a heart attack or something. Jimmy! Jimmy! My husband can’t breathe and can’t move.”
It took 24 minutes from the call for help for help to arrive. Help would have come from Aiken County ambulance had the county not been in Status Zero. Help would have come from 2.4 miles away had the nearest county EMS station been open. Instead, help came from a Southstar ambulance 13.5 miles away. It was too late to save 59-year-old James Moulton Sr. by the time Southstar got to Windsor from the Aiken County Library. Folk Funeral home posted his survivors include “his loving wife of 43 years.”
“You would think it was because of call volume but it is not. It’s because they are closing down of three, four stations a day,” Jackson said.
There are 10 Aiken County EMS stations throughout the county, but data from the last four months shows all 10 stations are never open on the same day. At most? Seven out of 10 are open. Stations 1 through 5 stay open but the rest periodically close. Station 8 or Sage Mill by Bridgestone never opened even for even one day.
This call came from Bridgestone on June 23:
Dispatch: “Aiken County 911.”
Caller: “Bridgestone, need an ambulance en route EMS en route to this location. I have a male, age unknown, with crushing injuries to the chest.”
It took 17 minutes for an Aiken County ambulance to get to Bridgestone. Had the county ambulance come from Station 8 or Sage Mill, directly across the street from Bridgestone, then it would have taken a minute. Andrew “Andy” Hobbs, 58, died when he got to the hospital. His obituary on Beggs Funeral Home’s website states, “he was well known for his kind spirit.”
We asked Rep. Taylor why he thought the county was in this type of situation.
“I don’t serve on the county council, so I don’t know how things happened,” Taylor said. “I am a state representative. This is a county issue, so I don’t know how it transpired over the years.”
“If something happens to me, then I told my wife put me in the car and take me to Columbia. Don’t wait on an ambulance,” Jackson said.
Jackson is so concerned that he’s spoken publicly to Aiken County’s top leaders in July.
“We are here tonight to plead with county officials to fix the problems now. This is not something we can wait on the lives of the citizens of our county and the thousands who travel through our great county hang in the balance every day,” Jackson told the Aiken County Council in July.
Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian tells us a solution is in the works, but it will take time. He acknowledged the danger of the situation.
“It could be. We understand that and we are trying to address it,” Killian said.
Chief Poole cannot afford to wait the next time. He knows what could have happened if he weren’t lucky.
“Probably would have died,” Poole said.
A Good Samaritan kept him alive until the ambulance arrived.
“I feel like the Lord saved me for a lot of things,” Poole said.
Poole believes God has kept him alive since then to tell his story and make changes in the county he has served for the last three decades.
Aiken County Council passed a resolution in Augusta to address the EMS crisis. It’s not the first time council has tried to improve the county’s ambulance service. Will it work this time? Our investigation into Status Zero continues Thursday.
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