After the tragic death of a Wagener toddler less than a month ago, Aiken County EMS and its policies were under public scrutiny.
Aiken County EMS facts
• Aiken County currently has nine EMS stations in locations including in Belvedere, Langley, Wagener, Graniteville and on Columbia Highway, Charleston Highway, Bull Dog Drive, York Street and Citadel Drive in Aiken. A 10th station is under construction on Wire Road.
• The Bull Dog location will be moved to Beech Island, and the station on Charleston Highway will be moved to Windsor.
• Three private providers participate in the County's Emergency Response Network: Capital City, South Star and Aiken Rescue. Jackson First Alert Rescue also participates when available and requested.
• At this time, Aiken County staffs nine transports, two quick response vehicles and two extrication/rescue units.
• Each station has one ambulance. There's a total of 15 transports that allows spare backup for transports that are down for maintenance or mechanical issues. The County is also preparing bids for four new ambulances to replace older units.
News coverage of the incident, accompanied by negative comments from the community, followed the release of a scathing email written by County Councilwoman Kathy Rawls. Her email was in response to another message from a volunteer fire official entitled “EMS Run by Idiots.”
The Aiken Standard requested complaints filed against the EMS over the last year to take a closer look at the department.
Out of more than 17,000 calls that Aiken County EMS responded to, 19 complaints were filed within the last 12 months.
The complaints ranged from patients who considered responding crew members as insensitive to dissatisfaction of care.
County Administrator Clay Killian said every complaint is reviewed, investigated and any necessary action is taken.
In some cases, staff was accused of being “rude” or “unprofessional” during a call. If deemed necessary, crew members were counseled on how to better handle patients and their families, according to some of the complaint forms.
In one case, a resident stated that derogatory language was used when addressing the patient, but, responding crew members denied saying any of the words listed, according to the complaint form.
Some filed complaints regarded the handling of a patient. In one instance, a resident claimed that a gurney wasn't used for a patient who recently had surgery and was experiencing a racing heart rate. The complaint further stated that the patient had to climb into the back of the ambulance.
Lastly, a few of the complaints mentioned missing items such as jewelry, money or identification cards. Some of those were simply cases of things misplaced amid the initial chaos and were later found while other cases required further investigation in efforts to help a patient locate those items.
The County also offers surveys to patients to fill out, if they are able, after EMS responds to their calls. Out of 65 surveys submitted in the last year, two complaints were submitted and they were concerns about response times.
In another instance, a resident said crew members accidentally knocked a hole in the dry wall of their home.
In the case of property damage, there is a claims process the complainant can pursue through the County, Killian said.
Killian reiterated the stressful situations that any emergency employee enters on a daily basis.
“Our folks are human,” Killian said. “There's no question that we're going to make mistakes because we're human, but it's also clear that our folks do a fabulous job.”
According to the documents gathered by the County, more positive remarks than negative have been made about the EMS services over the past year through email and surveys.
“Attentive,” “patient” and “sensitive” are some of the words often used throughout the surveys.
“Love, love, love this group of people. Absolutely amazing and treated me with nothing but respect,” read one survey.
Other comments described EMS as a group that goes above and beyond to help in a crisis situation.
In an email from a resident shortly after the incident in Wagener, he wrote that though the situation was heartbreaking and “has a lot of emotion wrapped around it,” he supports the County EMS and commended its work.
“They are not a bunch of idiots but professional life saving servants,” the email read. “I would ask you to take a look at all the calls EMS runs and evaluate them as a whole rather than the one call this past weekend.”
Throughout the month, as the discussion of the policy continued, Aiken County Council responded to the various comments made about EMS. During the July 16 meeting, Councilman Scott Singer said he felt that much of the EMS staff has shown compassion and care, adding that the department has improved over the years.
Rawls said there's still room for improvement. She said that more organization and less turnover, something she said is an issue in that department, would be the first steps in strengthening County EMS.
Complaints that Rawls has heard over the years include delays in response to calls and a lack of respect shown to volunteer first responders from EMS supervisors.
Rawls also has concerns with some of the decisions made in the past, citing an injury earlier this summer in which a polo player dislocated a shoulder. An ambulance was on the way but was called off.
In all fairness, Rawls said, the County paramedic on scene during the July 4 incident that sparked the most recent controversy was very good and someone who had at least 15 years of experience.
Since the incident in which the 2-year-old Ryan Eagerton succumbed to injuries sustained when he was struck by a vehicle at his home on July 4, Aiken County has changed its policy to allow certified first responders to authorize the launch of a helicopter.
Before the policy change, first responders could call into the Aiken County Sheriff's Office dispatch center to put a helicopter on standby but it couldn't leave the ground until an Aiken County EMS shift supervisor authorized the aircraft's takeoff.
Volunteer firefighters across the County demanded the policy change after Eagerton's death, stating that they were qualified to make that call and having the ability to do so would save precious minutes needed to save lives.
Though the issue revolved mostly around that policy, Killian said that morale of the County's EMS staff has been a concern after this incident.
“It is a concern when those things get played out in the public and a broad brush is used,” Killian said. “When our folks read any negative comment, it's hard for them not to take it personally. That is a concern. Morale is a concern.”
Killian added that the market is competitive when it comes to paramedics and other emergency responders.
“We always try to provide an environment for our folks to be successful no matter what department they're in. I think our (EMS) folks to do a great job,” Killian said. “I think our community can be confident that when our trucks show up, they're going to get the best care we can give them.”
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010. She is originally from Rustburg, Va. and is a graduate of Randolph Macon Woman's College.