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The York Rescue Squad has eliminated paid medical responders — including paramedics and emergency medical technicians — because it ran out of money in the face of fierce competition from Piedmont Medical Center ambulances, members said.
Capt. Debbie Huffstetler, the squad’s highest-ranking officer, said the squad was forced to suspend its paid medical staff members late last month because it no longer had enough money for its payroll. She said the squad must rely on volunteers to continue its services.
“We’re still York Rescue Squad. We have not disbanded. We just rely on volunteers,” she said. Huffstetler, who has volunteered with the squad since 1990, said she did not know if the squad would have enough volunteers to continue services as it has in the past.
Huffstetler said the nonprofit squad, which charges fees for its services and does fundraising, has for months been losing calls to Piedmont Medical Center ambulances, which have had a stepped-up presence in the York area in the past year.
“They have two trucks, sometimes three trucks, sitting on top of us,” she said. “We can’t even get out of our driveway and they’re on the road to the direction they need to go...By the time we get to a call, they’re already there.”
Steve Cotter, director of EMS services for PMC, said the hospital created a new “deployment plan” for EMS services last fall, with the goal of faster response times and better service to patients.
“We run a very different EMS system than they are used to seeing,” Cotter said, referring to the county’s nonprofit rescue squads. “I’m trying to provide a level of service to the community that’s second to none.”
The change — which Cotter said was based on computer models of the need for ambulance service — did include beefing up PMC ambulance services in Western York County, he said.
“We moved ambulanced in to areas that were underserved,” he said.
He said PMC now has seven ambulances in Western York County — about 50 percent of its force — covering the cities of York, Clover, the rural areas west of York and the River Hills and Lake Wylie area.
“It isn’t a matter of competition. It’s a matter of patient care and community well-being,” he said.
Shari Wingate of York, a part-time paramedic with the York squad, said she was working on Aug. 21 when she and other paid staff members were told they would no longer be paid.
Wingate said she was told: “This is the money we have; we can’t afford to pay you guys. You’re welcome to volunteer. When we have people to volunteer, we’ll have a truck up and running, but when we don’t, we won’t.”
Wingate, who also works full-time as a nurse in Charlotte, also attributed the squad’s financial troubles to stepped-up competition from Piedmont. She said PMC usually had two ambulances sitting close to the rescue squad building waiting to respond to calls.
“By the time we would get in our truck en route, they would be right in front of us,” Wingate said. “They sat with their trucks running. And we couldn’t sit with our trucks running; it’s too hot and too hard on our trucks.”
Wingate said she is concerned about the potential impact on the community.
“I feel my city and the surrounding area is not going to receive the rapid response that we were getting when there was competition with Piedmont,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s fair that a company can come in and do away with an icon. The rescue squads are icons for the area.”
Huffstetler declined to answer specific questions about the rescue squad’s staff, except to say that all paid medical responders were part-time employees. Wingate said the squad has around 15 staff members. She said two EMTs did depend on the squad as their sole source of income.
Huffstetler said squad officers planned to meet this week to discuss the squad’s future and she said they will release more details at that time.
She said the squad, which offered its services from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, was established in 1960. She said the eventual goal has been for the squad to run its trucks around the clock.
The York squad operated out of a city-owned building near the York Fire Department, said Mayor Eddie Lee. He said that for decades, the city of York has contributed $6,000 in annual funding for gasoline.
“They provide a lifesaving service; that’s what they’ve done over the years,” Lee said. However, he added, “this is not about competition, this is about saving people’s lives.”
Lee and Fire Chief Dominic Manera both expressed concern about the quality of ambulance services to the community. Said Manera: “You’re less one ambulance and one paramedic crew,” he said.
“What concerns me is, will they keep the same number of units here once York Rescue is gone?” Manera said, referring to PMC.
Cotter said he is confident PMC’s ambulance service in Western York County won’t be reduced.
“We’ve been watching since York has been down,” Cotter said, referring to the rescue squad not being operational. “We’ve watched our response times in the city of York and in the western zone of the county, and we have seen no change in our response times.”
He said average response time in the city of York is 4 minutes and 50 seconds.
Cotter said PMC keeps two ambulances in York during daytime hours and one overnight, a time when he said the call volume goes down. When the available ambulances in York are on calls, he said, a third ambulance is moved into the area “to allow coverage levels to remain the same.”
“We as the contracted 911 provider for the county want to make sure all of the citizens of York County get that expected level of service,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”