By DEUCE NIVEN
Improvements to Columbus County’s EMS system will be the focus of a study provided by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners in the coming year.
County Manager Eddie Madden told Columbus commissioners of the planned study Monday evening, briefly outlining the effort.
Team members from the state association will provide technical assistance to Columbus and bring in experts from other counties to identify priorities for the future of EMS locally, Madden said.
A local committee of just seven members will work on the study, Madden said Tuesday. Randy Guyton, the current President of the Columbus County Fire & Rescue Association, representatives from Columbus County Regional Healthcare including the county’s contract EMS director, and a county commissioner will be part of that panel.
Neil Emory, a former Harnett County manager who took part in a similar study there two decades ago, will lead the state association team, Madden said. Emory asked that Madden serve on that committee.
Newly appointed Assistant County Manager Roy “Nick” West and the county’s Emergency Services Director, Kay Stephens, will not serve on the panel but have been assigned to assist, Madden said.
It’s not clear, yet, when the panel’s work will begin. Funding for the study is tied to the state’s new budget, which has not yet been signed into law, Madden said.
‘Level of care’
EMS in Columbus County has evolved greatly since the days when funeral homes did double duty in the ambulance field. Whiteville Rescue Unit and Tabor City Rescue Squad were among the first independent ambulance services in the county, established in the mid-1960s and setting the pattern for private, non-profit organizations relying on volunteers to respond to medical emergencies.
“Good departments have served us well over the years,” Madden said. “But some enhancement of the program has to take place.”
Like the EMS departments in Columbus County, the state of EMS in North Carolina has evolved, too. Little if any training and certification was required of the volunteers who answered emergency calls in the early days.
Today North Carolina’s Office of Emergency Medical Services has authority over EMS departments across the state, and sets minimum training standards at varying levels, the Paramedic level now common in paid services in the Carolinas and nationally.
But, in Columbus County only one department, Whiteville Rescue Unit, has been able to attain and maintain operations at the Paramedic level. Other departments are mandated by the county to operate at a minimum EMT-Intermediate level, more advanced than the basic EMT level, less than Paramedic.
“Every single citizen and taxpayer deserves the same level of care,” Madden said.
Just how to deliver that care across the county’s 954 square miles will be the focus of the new panel.
Columbus is nearly unique among North Carolina counties, operating an EMS system made up entirely of independent EMS providers, all relying at least partly on volunteers.
That means the study will take some time.
“I anticipate the entire process will probably last 12 months,” Madden said. “That’s because the association has not done a full evaluation of a system quite like ours. They will have to wrestle with how to best conduct an evaluation of our system.
“Most counties have migrated to some type of paid staff, or some hybrid, maybe volunteers at night, paid staff in the day.”
Staffing problems at Nakina Fire & Rescue earlier this year led to a suspension of its EMS services in the county this summer, and helped bring the issue of EMS service and level of care “to the forefront,” Madden said.
“Every department is experiencing some of the same issues,” Madden said. “Every department is experiencing a downturn in volunteering. It’s a national trend. It’s been worsened during COVID. Fewer and fewer people are volunteering, it’s putting stress on departments.”
More of this story may be seen in today’s Tabor-Loris Tribune in print and online.