SURGOINSVILLE — An ambulance service cutback due to economic circumstances is regrettable but understandable, but one thing Mayor Merrell Graham doesn’t understand is why his town wasn’t notified.
The first time Surgoinsville leaders realized that Hawkins County EMS (HCEMS) was no longer staging an ambulance there was Tuesday, when the town’s code enforcement officer, Eddie McNally, reported not seeing anyone at the EMS station for a few days.
On Tuesday night, Fire Chief Shane Suthers and Police Chief James Hammond both called Graham to inform him that HCEMS had moved out of the fire station at some point last week in the middle of the night.
“Nobody seen them leaving. They didn’t call James (Hammonds). They didn’t call anybody,” Graham told the Times News Thursday. “Yesterday I contacted the county and a few commissioners, and they didn’t even know about it. They were taken totally by surprise.”
Not enough staff and too much overtime
Hawkins County Public Safety Committee Chairman John Metz told the Times News he had met with HCEMS officials in late February and was notified of two pressing issues.
The biggest problem was a manpower shortage, which was resulting in extensive overtime payments for ambulance staff. That was leading directly to the second problem, which was a funding shortage.
HCEMS reported to Metz that if it continued with six ambulances operating 24/7 countywide, it would be operating at a loss of $30,000 for March.
“If they went from six trucks to five trucks, that would alleviate their overtime problem and still be adequately covered,” Metz said. “The county regulations say that they have to adequately cover the county, but there’s not anything stipulating the number of trucks that you have.”
Metz said he believes the recent EMS call volume justifies the reduction to five 24/7 ambulances.
The ambulance that now serves Surgoinsville is stationed at Church Hill Fire Department Station 2, just off Highway 11-W near Volunteer High School.
Before Church Hill EMS shut down in 2016, there were 10-12 ambulances working 24/7 in Hawkins County. After the shutdown when HCEMS took over the whole county, they were reduced to seven, then six, and now five ambulances to cover the entire county except for the Kingsport portion.
“I’ve been very shocked that they weren’t notified”
Metz said he advised HCEMS to send a letter to County Mayor Jim Lee to let him know their plan to cut one ambulance, because the next Public Safety Committee meeting, when HCEMS reports to the county commission, isn’t until March 27.
However, the Surgoinville mayor wasn’t notified, nor were other key county officials including 911 Board Director Mike Herrell.
“I’ve been very shocked that they weren’t notified,” Metz said. “I never dreamed in a thousand years that they wouldn’t contact the city of Surgoinsville because they (HCEMS) have a preferred vendor agreement with Surgoinsville. They didn’t so much as give him (Graham) a courtesy call. That’s just bad business.”
Metz added, “The Public Safety Committee is meeting on March 27, and that will give everyone involved the opportunity to hear how things are going, what effect this move has had, and we’re going to be able to see if going from six to five trucks has had a negative impact. We’ll have some actual hard data with five trucks.”
“I’m not happy with this at all”
Graham told the Times News he was informed by HCEMS Director Jason Murrell on Wednesday that the agency would station a truck in Surgoinsville beginning next week that could be used for transport only.
However, that truck would only be in town Monday through Friday between eight and 12 hours per day.
There is an EMS station located inside the Surgonsville Fire Department which HCEMS utilized rent-free as part of its agreement with the city.
“I told Jason Murrell I’m not happy with this at all,” Graham said. “We need 24-hour ambulance coverage here. I said I don’t know if I’ll accept that or not. We need something here, and that may be the best we can do.”
Graham said he was told the call volume inside the city limits doesn’t justify a full-time ambulance.
“I was told they only had 200 calls inside the county last year, and then I heard it was 500, but some of those might have been from outside the city as well. I don’t know what’s right, but I do know by living here and working here every day that ambulance goes out every day numerous times.”
The HCEMS’ departure is expected to be a topic of discussion at the Surgoinsville Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting Monday at 7 p.m.
Commissioner and concerned citizen
Commissioner Hannah speaks, who lives just outside the Surgoinsville city limits, said this isn’t just a problem for residents in town.
“This decision affects my district and my family and loved ones directly,” Speaks said. “While I understand their need to cut costs, I am upset with the way this situation was handled. We could have been given notice. Certainly the Surgoinsville BMA should’ve been notified. We had a full commission meeting the last Monday of February, and no one mentioned a thing, even though this had to already be in the works.
“My greatest concern, though, is that for some time now, Hawkins County EMS seems to be in financial strain. The men and women employed there are phenomenal at what they do, but it seems we are having some kind of issue just every few months. It’s time for the commission to look at this situation deeper and do what we need to do to assure our residents have a reliable ambulance service.”