Highland Board Receives Public Input on EMS Funding
At a work session on Wednesday, November 15th, the Highland County Board of Supervisors and county residents tackled the ongoing issue of how to fund emergency medical services. A full house with over fifty people gathered for the meeting, so much so that several had to stand.
With Board Chairman David Blanchard absent, Vice-chairman Harry Sponaugle began the meeting by explaining that all rural counties are now facing this same problem with a low number of volunteers for EMS and fire departments. The Board is considering asking the state legislature to allow Highland County to assess a fee on each habitable dwelling to cover the cost of paid EMS staff. Even if the legislature grants this right, the Board still needs to enact an ordinance to use that right, which would require a public hearing. Mr. Sponaugle invited more suggestions for funding, but also stated that the time was not meant to be a complaint session for individual views of the actions of rescue squad volunteers or any county employees.
Kevin Wagner then presented a personal editorial, which he made clear was not an official opinion of the board. He said he is certain that the squad will need a larger paid presence moving forward. He said, “Some say, well, we live in a frontier environment. We should all be prepared to shove our loved ones in a car and head for a hospital on our own, and that’s a real choice that they have, but it can’t be a policy for the county.”
Sixteen people spoke on the multi-layered issue. Audience comments ranged from support of the county helping the rescue squad with funding for paid staff, even if through a tax, to questions about a lack of communication between agencies and whether enough research has been done by the board to make a proper plan of action.
When questioned about charging more for the use of rescue squad services, Mr. Wagner explained that billing and paying currently belongs to the rescue squad. If the county was to form their own agency to take on this billing and paying, it would require a business plan for a new type of business.
Some requested transparency in a business plan for how money will be spent and that there be more accountability to paid staff and their procedures in order to justify using taxpayer money. Speaker Elisabeth Chandler expressed this position. She said, “I don’t that think there’s necessarily an argument against paying for people to run rescue. I think that the argument comes in when the people that are paid are not accountable for their actions.”
Resident Beth Pyles suggested the idea of prudent reserve by examining the use of current funds or savings before asking for more, as well as examining the assumption that more paid staff will actually equal a better response time. She said, “What I’m hearing is, I don’t know that we can hire enough people, because of the geography of this county to always have perfect response time, or the ideal response time, so I’m not sure that we’re able to quantify that paid staff is gonna solve the problem.”
Jaimie Simmons, emergency room nurse at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, suggested more coordination between agencies. She noted that in other counties, some police departments issue defibrillators so officers can help if they’re first on the scene. Other areas have dispatchers that can be trained to provide basic medical help to folks who call and need immediate help before a squad arrives. Ms. Simmons said, “We have the police officers, we have dispatchers, we have the rescue squad, we have the fire department. Each little individual agency seems to be handling their own selves, but nobody’s really talking. Nobody’s working together as a team.”
Others echoed the sentiment of the need to form a type of coalition or taskforce between agencies. Other ideas included hiring folks with duel-function roles, learning more about blended models that are successful such as in Augusta County, pursuing Dominion for funds with the forthcoming pipeline project, addressing why volunteers have been turned away and creating a nurse hotline for those who call for the squad frequently.
Several residents praised volunteers and the talent already in the county, but the challenge of how to proceed remains. Resident Dave Smith spoke on perspective. He said, “Let’s get politics out of it, and get down to the need. You’re talkin’ about people’s lives, whether it be kids, middle-age people, or older people. It’s people lives is what’s at risk here.”