Special town council meeting on EMS

On Feb. 22, the Blowing Rock Town Council met for a special discussion on Emergency Medical Services provided by Watauga County. Participants included Watauga Medics CEO Craig Sullivan, Blowing Rock Fire & Rescue Chief Kent Graham, town manager Shane Fox, and all members of Blowing Rock’s town council.

Monday evening’s special meeting of Blowing Rock’s town council focused on ambulance transport coverage for the town and fire district generated more questions than answers, but by the end all participants agreed that it was a constructive hour and a half well spent.

For those listening to the virtual meeting, one thing was abundantly clear: each of the sitting town council members have been getting an earful from Blowing Rock residents concerned about the unevenness of the ambulance coverage being provided by Watauga County.

“One day in the future,” said commissioner Albert Yount, “there will be an incident where someone will be laying out in their front yard with a heart attack and ambulance transport to the hospital will not get to him in time.

“People are going to look to us and blame us,” he said as he swept his arm around the town council chambers.

Another reality was also underlined in the discussion, one that included Watauga Medics CEO Craig Sullivan, Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue Chief Kent Graham, town manager Shane Fox and all members of Blowing Rock’s town council.

At one point, commissioner Virginia Powell asked Sullivan about who was responsible for making decisions about where ambulances were stationed during the day or week and was told “the numbers.” He explained that there were eight times more calls in Boone than from Blowing Rock, so if two ambulance trucks in Boone were out on calls, then the truck designated for a nine-hour shift, five days a week in Blowing Rock would be “moved up” to Boone.

Commissioner Sue Sweeting said that those situations were what concerned citizens the most, and that priority was being given to Boone, leaving Blowing Rock vulnerable.

Yount pressed for “Where does the buck stop?” in making decisions about how many ambulances are in service in Watauga County and where bases are located. Both Sullivan and Graham stated that those decisions are ultimately the responsibility of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners.

Asked about the “90 in 9” standard established by the EMS industry, where 90 percent of medical emergencies in a jurisdiction should be responded to within nine minutes, Sullivan defended the current requirement for all emergency medical calls be responded to within an average of nine minutes. He stated that the “90 in 9” fractal measure is more practical in urban areas and not really applicable to a more rural Watauga County.

“This is the way we have always done it,” he said about the average response performance standard.

It also became clear from the meeting that attorneys will have to be consulted if Blowing Rock wants in any way to “go it alone,” to increase ambulance coverage for Blowing Rock town and fire district inhabitants.

Sullivan was asked to identify answers to a series of questions that, he said, would require him to meet with attorneys:

  • Can Blowing Rock contract with Watauga Medics to place a 24/7 ambulance at the Blowing Rock fire station independent of the Watauga County contract?
  • If so, how much would that cost?
  • Can Blowing Rock hire another ambulance vendor to supplement the coverage provided by Watauga Medics?

Sullivan did say that he could provide the service if the franchise contract with Watauga County permits it, but it was going to require attorneys to get involved. “That’s above my pay grade,” he said.

The Blowing Rock commissioners indicated that they were hoping for answers by their regular meeting on March 9.

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