EMS/Rescue Column: Save lives or save money?

Which is more important – saving lives or saving money? That is the real question between Rutherford County Rescue, Hickory Nut Gorge Rescue, and RC Emergency Management Services. For most people, it is an easy answer. However, in RC it’s not the first time that question has been asked without a satisfactory resolution.

As Commissioner Michael Benfield stated at the last meeting, people don’t understand there are different levels of emergency responders. They assume that the person who shows up to aid them is a paramedic, the highest level of training. (Benfield has medical training and has instructed EMT classes.) In North Carolina there are different levels of certification for Medical Responders.

  • EMT-Basic
  • EMT-Intermediate (The NC EMT-I scope of practice lies between the national I-85 and I-99 level)
  • EMT-Paramedic

The first question Benfield asked Chief Amy Dalton of the Hickory Nut Gorge Rescue  (HNG) was how many paramedics they had on their roster. She answered none; they were an intermediate level facility. That raised a few eyebrows. Benfield went on to say he wanted a paramedic to come to his house, and not to have a 911 caller who was distraught and maybe not even know him to be used to evaluate what level of care he deserved. He did not ask how many RC EMS were on the HNG roster.

The HNG Rescue is located on Bill’s Creek Road – on the Rutherfordton side of Lake Lure. Response time to Chimney Rock State Park includes the driving of a two-lane winding road with a speed limit varying from 25-35 m.p.h. by necessity through Lake Lure. With no paramedics within 20 minutes of Chimney Rock, perhaps the commissioners instead of moving district lines further from Chimney Rock might consider putting a paramedic/EMS truck at the Chimney Rock Fire Dept. The average age in HNG was around 67 years-old a few years ago.

About 4 years or 5 years ago, the commissioners and county manager of that time heard several proposals on how to resolve covering our large county for medical emergencies in the best possible way. Commissioner Eddie Holland had proposed an EMS station in Henrietta to serve the Southern part of our county. However, he was outvoted when the budget came up that linked EMS station to the ill-fated Daniel Road project.

However, before that new EMS station was built, then county commissioners approved bringing in Transmed to handle the lucrative non-emergency medical transport calls. Director Richard Pettis objected to giving away the lower priority calls to a S.C. business. Instead, the EMS Director proposed expanding EMS to cover the entire county. Pettis was fired shortly afterward. Dr. Tom Green immediately resigned as supervising physician. (Transmed never got into the transport business here.)

2013 County Commissioners (l-r-front row: Julius Owens, Bill Eckler; back row: Greg Lovelace, Eddie Holland, Bo Richard

Then county manager John Condrey attempted to explain to the former commissioners the effects of giving away of a substantial part of the budget income for EMS, but was ignored. He was fired shortly afterwards. County attorney Beth Miller resigned. The finance director also resigned. EDC director Tom Johnson resigned.

When Carl Classen was hired as county manager, he told the former commissioners that the new EMS station would be funded from the new profits made in taking over low priority calls that the rescue units had been handling. He appointed Kerry Giles, head of transit, to supervise both RC Transit and RC EMS saying “they are both forms of transportation.” Giles at that time had no experience with EMS or a medical background.

Classen and Giles withheld the funding for the rescue organizations unless their contracts were signed. Talks became heated enough during negotiations that lawyers were hired. There were many questions over the payroll practices of Hickory Nut Gorge and their weekend pay policy. An edict went out that RC EMS could not work part-time with the rescues. However, that policy is not enforced.

Meanwhile, the EMS billing clerk was filing fraudulent reports that cost the county $750,000. The clerk eventually got fired and prosecuted. The supervisor got a slap on the wrist.

Two of the rescue organizations, Volunteer Lifesaving and Rescue Unit, Inc. and RC Lifesaving and First Aid crew merged into RC Lifesaving and First Aid Crew, Inc. The district lines were legally drawn between the new organization and HNG. Contracts were signed and citizens still receive services from both organizations.

2017 Commissioners: Front row (l-r) Bryan King, Alan Toney. Back row: Michael Benfield, Eddie Holland, Greg Lovelace

After many disappointments and the exchange of $50k tipping fees waiver for the land, the EMS station in Henrietta got funding and was built with an adjacent library with our current commissioners.

At the last county commissioner meeting, Chief Amy Dalton of HNG Rescue made a formal request to have the rescue response districts redrawn. No one had discussed this proposal with RC Rescue. However, there are now ongoing discussions being conducted by the current county commissioners.