Gaston County will have to invest money in ambulances, paramedics and in beefing up volunteer rescue squads if it wants to bring its emergency response times within national standards, county officials say.
The county's paramedics fail to respond within the nationally recommended time of nine minutes or less on six out of every 10 calls, an Observer investigation found. The average response time of 10.7 minutes is the worst in the Charlotte region.
Directors with Gaston Emergency Medical Services blame the problem on drastically increased call volume, resources that haven't kept pace, and on rescue squads not picking up their share of calls. The county-operated GEMS also is the only Gaston agency with paramedics trained to treat the sickest patients.
"I think we've overtaxed our system in some respects," county commissioner Donnie Loftis said.
Additionally, the county's eight volunteer rescue squads fail to respond to about one out of every four calls, the Observer found.
EMS Director Mark Lamphiear is talking with emergency management, rescue squad and fire department leaders to figure out how to restructure the county's resources.
Most of the talks have focused on adopting a national standard protocol for multiagency emergency response. Commissioners, some of whom are pushing to reorganize the EMS system, are expected to approve it Thursday.
As part of those talks, emergency management officials have proposed preliminary ideas to get medics on the scene faster, but haven't determined where to get the money.
One idea is to partially staff volunteer agencies with paid people during the day, when volunteers are least likely to respond because they have full-time jobs, said Jim Pharr, Gaston's emergency management director.
"Some people say we're trying to get rid of the volunteers," he said. "But we can't function without volunteers in this county."
Staffing volunteer stations with paid EMTs would help free paramedics for more serious calls, said David Scercy, a volunteer EMT and firefighter with Mount Holly Fire and Rescue.
A few of Gaston's volunteer agencies already have a handful of paid EMTs. Gaston Lifesaving Crew in Gastonia, one of the eight rescue squads, pays its EMTs to answer emergency calls 24/7.
The county also could provide incentives for volunteer rescue squads and fire departments to answer more calls, such as paying them more money based on performance, Lamphiear said.
Emergency officials cite Catawba County as an example.
In 2002, Catawba officials gave rescue squads more money, but told them they had to respond to calls within six minutes, said EMS manager Bryan Blanton.
It worked: The rescue squads used the money to hire part-time staff, and the average response time of about 8.5 minutes dropped to 6 minutes, he said.
Another option is for Gaston rescue squads to pick up all the calls they receive during designated times, commissioner John Torbett said.
Cleveland County's five rescue squads are on call during designated times to respond to nonemergency calls, said EMS director Joe Lord.
However, "they have a choice of whether or not they want to take that call," Lord said. "If they ... want to take a transport or emergency call, we allow them. If they don't, we understand that."
Gaston officials also are looking at buying heart defibrillators for every police, rescue squad and volunteer fire department vehicle, Lamphiear said.
The county also needs more ambulances for both GEMS and volunteer agencies, said assistant GEMS director Jeff Waldrep. The wait for an ambulance can mean life or death.
It took GEMS paramedics a half-hour to get to the Gastonia home of Dewey Jones, 64, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage during a February 2003 ice storm. A rescue squad arrived in nine minutes, but the EMTs weren't equipped to take him to the hospital.
A doctor said he would have died if he had arrived 30 minutes later, said wife Jane Jones, 52.