911 Director Mike O’Brien Discusses Pocahontas County Ambulance Crisis
Recently we spoke with Pocahontas County 911 and Emergency Management Director, Mike O’Brien, to get his perspective on the ambulance crisis here.
Mike. as the Pocahontas County 911 Director, do you agree that there is an urgent crisis with timely responses by ambulances to emergency calls here, as Commissioner Rebinski has said?
“From a 911 standpoint, we are seeing a huge increase in EMS unit response times,” said O’Brien. “It used to be (that if) you call EMS and you’d have volunteers, and they was in and out (of the station) in 15 minutes, and now we are calling 3 or 4 different departments (to find a unit) to respond to these EMS calls, and we’re calling out of county. We have even had to contact Highland County, Virginia trying to get trucks. Folks are waiting an hour or more for an ambulance, and that’s concerning, and It seems to be more concerning in the northern end of the county more so than in the southern end of the county. Because in the southern end, you have the hospital. It has a paid service that backs up the squads, and you have Marlinton Fire Department that has a paid crew Monday through Friday that helps a lot. In the northern end, it’s getting pretty desperate up there. There is a handful of very dedicated volunteers that continue to run those calls, and they are really at their end, and they are begging for help and don’t know how much longer they can sustain.”
“I really applaud Commissioner Rebinski for working really hard and trying to come up with a quick solution for that problem in the northern end of the county,” O’Brien continued. “And, I think it’s a really good start with county EMS services in general and going county-based. I do have some concerns from a 911 standpoint, and a personal standpoint. And, my first concern, I learned about this at the Commission meeting, same as you and everybody else, Tim, is Commissioner Rebinski made the comment that the (county) EMS authority wasn’t involved with the hiring of these people or have any input into this. And I have a lot concerns about that idea. That EMS Authority was put into place by the commission to guide them on the best practices for EMS services in the county, the same way the 911 board was put in place to oversee the 911 Center and the Hospital Board was put into place to oversee the hospital. I have some concerns as to why they are not involved with this whole process more than they are.”
“And, the second concern I have is Commissioner Rebinski is a great guy and no doubt he has the background to handle this, He has been a dedicated EMS volunteer for over 30 years in this county. He is single-handedly heading this thing up, and doing a good job with it. He is knocking down a lot of red-tape and issues in the past. But you also have to understand, he is an elected official and elections come around. What happens if next election cycle Commissioner Rebinski is not victorious, and there is a new commissioner appointed, and that commissioner knows nothing about EMS? Who’s going to oversee that service then? That’s a concern.”
“And the next concern I have is the pay-rate,” said O’Brien. “The commission has put a valuation of an EMT as $15.00 per hour starting pay, while they are still valuating our medical dispatchers at $12.00 per hour. I have some concerns with that -it don’t sit too well with me. As you know, Pocahontas County is a tough place to work. It’s an even tougher place to live and raise a family. With that being said, some people would say ‘well, the cost of living is less here.’ I don’t buy that, I don’t agree with it. Out there (in other places) a lot of the services are right at the people’s fingertips, and if you live in Pocahontas County, you have to travel hours for services and specialized medical care, and if you put a valuation on that, I would say Pocahontas County is one of the most expensive places in this nation to live.”
“But I have no doubt,” O’Brien said, “the current County Commission, and hopefully we’ll ger the EMS Board together and they will build a good foundation, and lay out a good framework that will sustain a County EMS Service and keep the residents and guests in Pocahontas County protected for years to come.”
Mike, if Rebinski’s plan to start the service in the northern-end of the county first is passed, how long do you think it would be before the southern-end gets a crewed county ambulance?
“My personal opinion is they should be working toward a county-based service, and I think that is where that EMS Board comes into play,” O’Brien answered. “They need to be working with these volunteer squads to figure out that plan, and formulate a plan for (county-wide) coverage, and get that up and going. There’s a lot of things that need to be worked out there. There’s going to be some give and take from the volunteer fire departments, and the EMS services and the paid departments to get this up and going, to maintain it and keep it sustainable. I don’t know a time frame; it is all about just bringing it together. You have to keep in mind, the southern end has a paid service at the hospital. So we have a paid squad to back-up the volunteer squads when they can’t get out the door, provided the hospital truck is not out on a call. And then Marlinton gets some relief. They do keep a paid crew Monday through Friday. A very dedicated one, they respond to a lot of calls in the county, and we use that a lot. They don’t have that luxury in the northern end of the county, and keep in mind that Commissioner Rebinski’s plan right now is only for a BLS truck, not an ALS (Advanced Life Support) level truck – that’s a Basic Life Support truck that he’s trying to get going up there. Hopefully they are successful and can get the people and find the funding to make this a county-wide service.”