I-TEAM: Aiken County’s EMS crisis at breaking point after decade of warning signs

Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 6:21 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A plan is now in place to fix Aiken County’s EMS crisis after years of warning signs and complaints raised by EMS employees and citizens.

A five-month investigation by the I-Team found a severe shortage of EMT’s and paramedics has lead to EMS stations being shut down and people waiting sometimes hours for help after calling 911.

On July 24, Aiken County EMS went to Status Zero seven times. Status Zero is the code dispatchers use when there are no available ambulances to respond to a medical emergency. The I-Team found 26 people called during 911 Status Zero on July 24.

The calls included a child’s seizure, an accident with injuries, a possible assault, medical device failures, a cardiac arrest, a pregnancy, and COVID-19 complications. Some of the 911 callers waited more than 30 minutes just for an available ambulance to be en route. State law requires an ambulance to be en route within five minutes.

“Yes, we have gone Status Zero and it happens much more frequently than we want to,” Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian said.

It’s happened a lot more. The I-Team began tracking Status Zero reports in late spring. We uncovered Aiken County went to status zero 118 times from May through August.

It took 53 minutes for EMS to get to Glenn Poole when he had a seizure in May.

“It’s bad we got to wait for an ambulance over here and we have for many, many years,” Poole said.

Aiken County’s EMS problem has been around for as nearly as long as Poole’s been fire chief of Hollow Creek Fire Department.

We began reporting on EMS concerns in the county 14 years ago. In 2006, we reported on the high turnover rate for emergency workers. In 2013, we showed how a delayed response by EMS may have cost a 2-year-old Aiken County toddler his life. In 2014, County Administrator Clay Killian told our reporter, “I want to say it’s across the board that we are behind but we haven’t moved our pay ranges since 2007.”

In 2020, Killian gave the same response to our I-Team stating, "across the board, the county is kind of behind.”

Killian still blames low pay combined with a national EMT and paramedic shortage on the county’s EMS crisis.

“We are like a lot of other services. we are struggling to find people. There is not as many people coming through the pipeline as there used to be,” Killian said.

This could explain why none of the county’s 10 EMS stations are never ever open and manned at the same time. At the most, the I-Team found only seven of the 10 stations were open May through August.

This call is one of the several that came in during July 24′s Status Zero on July 24.

Dispatch: “Aiken County 911.”

Caller: “Yeah, my wife has heat exhaustion. She’s in my car at your Substation EMS 10. Nobody is here.”

Dispatch: “No, sir, that station doesn’t have anybody at it today.”

Caller: “I need somebody. I can’t drive 90 miles an hour to a hospital.”

“We are working every angle we know of to get EMT’s in our system,” Killian said.

He tells the I-Team that Aiken County increased EMS pay four times since July of last year. The most recent increase came last month after the county council passed a resolution to combat the EMS shortage. The resolution includes teaming up with Aiken Tech to turn out new EMTs, allocating funds for recruitment and new positions, and partnering with private providers.

“That is one thing we try to make sure is that the private services that are in our system are providing at least the same quality of care that we are,” Killian said. Southstar Ambulance Service has been contracting with the county for more than a decade but not without complaints.

Our I-Team obtained internal emails from supervisors at Aiken County EMS to supervisors at Southstar. We counted 25 complaints over a 15-month time period. Seventeen of the calls were concerns over Southstar crews avoiding or attempting to avoid responding to medical calls.

Here are just a few of the email complaints from Aiken County EMS to Southstar:

We asked the owner of Southstar, Jim Adkins, about the complaints.

“I realize the stresses caused by staff shortages, which may seem like ‘dodging calls’, but that flies in the face of the only way we can continue services by being available and making transport," Adkins said. "The solicited comments you referenced are personal statements of which all were resolved in an acceptable manner.”

The President and CEO of Southstar responded to several of our questions.
The President and CEO of Southstar responded to several of our questions.(WRDW)

County administrator Killian also responded.

“I don’t get involved in the operation day to day stuff," Killian said.

Aiken County renewed its contract with Southstar last week.

“The county has got a problem; totally got a problem. They need to look at the way things are run, who is running it, who is in charge,” Chief Poole said.

Once the Southstar ambulance got to Poole on the day of his seizure, a tire blew. It took nearly two and a half hours to get him to the hospital.

Aiken County went to Status Zero 29 times in September a month after county council passed a resolution to improve EMS service in the county.

Data from the County shows Status Zero information from the month of September.
Data from the County shows Status Zero information from the month of September.(WRDW)
Data from the County shows Status Zero information from the month of September.
Data from the County shows Status Zero information from the month of September.(WRDW)
This resolution was introduced by the Aiken County Council.
This resolution was introduced by the Aiken County Council.(WRDW)
Aiken County resolution
Aiken County resolution(WRDW)

Gold Cross, another private ambulance service, signed an agreement last month to help the county over the next year. This came after the COO spoke publicly to the council stating he has been offering his services to the county for years.

What about oversight? South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental control enforces EMS regulation across the state.

A DHEC spokesperson told our I-Team they only knew of one incident where it took too long for an ambulance to be en route to a patient. The incident was the response to Glenn Poole.

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