CLARKESVILLE — For the first time in its history, Habersham Emergency Medical Services will leave the direct oversight of Habersham Medical Center effective March 5.
The Habersham County Commission voted Monday night to accept oversight of the county’s 36 paramedics, 12 emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and two Community Paramedicine personnel.
“This change will allow cross-training among fire and EMS personnel and will strategically position personnel and equipment to improve responsiveness to all emergency calls,” County Manager Phil Sutton said.
Current Habersham EMS Director Chad Black has been named director of the newly-created Habersham Emergency Services Department. Habersham County Fire Chief Jeff Cain will continue in that capacity, and additionally will serve as assistant director of Habersham Emergency Services.
The transition will be a first for Habersham Emergency Medical Services, originally known as the Habersham County Ambulance Service.
“Since the ambulance and paramedic service was authorized in Habersham County in 1974, that service has been contracted for the county and provided by Habersham Medical Center,” said Habersham County Commission Chairman Victor Anderson. “It will allow us to terminate a contract that has long been between the hospital and the county, which basically the county paid all the expenses, but there was always some animosity around that contract and what had to go in it, what should go in it, and what shouldn’t. It cleans up a lot of issues for us and gives us better service for our citizens.”
The Hospital Authority of Habersham County began a meeting in another room of the courthouse at 7:30 p.m. Monday, near the end of the county commission meeting, to formally approve the transition.
“In full cooperation with the hospital authority board and the hospital administration staff and after our meeting, the hospital authority board is actually meeting right now, to basically ratify the same resolution that we just did, which will transfer the oversight for the paramedic and ambulance service to the county government of Habersham County,” Anderson said at the conclusion of the county commission meeting.
“Now, the vote has been done, so myself, Chief Cain and the staff will meet with all the fire and EMS staff tomorrow,” Black said following the meeting. “From what I’m hearing and getting feedback now is that it’s a very positive thing. People are excited about building this department and being part of something. We’ve got a lot of local people that are from Habersham County that work for us, and we want to create an atmosphere that these people stay home, work in their community, give back to their community, and retire from here. That’s going to be our focus: creating the best emergency services department that we can, understanding there is a budget and a financial responsibility we have to work within, but also understanding there’s a responsibility of us to put out in there in the field and for the citizens competent, qualified and capable personnel that can respond to the needs of the citizens when they need our services.”
Anderson said the Community Paramedicine Program will transition when that contract expires at the end of June. That program places two personnel in the community doing home visits to specific patients, with the goal of reducing readmissions to the hospital.
Sutton said Black and Cain will lead the transition to combine EMS and fire services as one unified department.
“I’m in my second career, and I’m very fortunate,” Black said. “But I want the cream of the crop, and I’m going to do everything I can to maintain that level of professionalism, along with Chief Cain and his staff, so that the people of Habersham County are well taken care of in their time of need.”
While non-emergency and inter-facility transfers are a revenue stream, Black and county officials realize the importance of having front-line ambulances to respond to emergency calls dispatched by 9-1-1.
That means more transfers could be handled by private ambulance services during in the future if emergency call volume continues to increase.
“We will still do what we can do,” Black said. “The hospital has asked me to get with some private services to have a backup.”
Black said while the rate and frequency of interfacility transports has leveled off some, it has been a challenge recently.
“With this flu season, we have had patients need to be transferred,” Black said. “One day, we had the closest hospital open bed they could find was Asheville, N.C., which would have taken a truck out of our county for about eight hours to get up there and back if everything went ok. We just can’t send them that far, so we’re going to work with the hospital to help them have a private service or maybe two that if we can’t handle them or if we can’t tie up our trucks due to the number of calls, then they will have a back-up with the private services that will be able to handle those transfers. We’ll still do what we can, but there will be some that the private services are going to handle. And some of those are handled by private services now because of how busy we are.”
Black estimates the new combined emergency services department will run about 12,000 calls in its first year, with about 8,500 to 9,000 of those calls being EMS-related – 9-1-1 responses, transfers and the Community Paramedicine Program.
The March 5 transition is a full transfer of all personnel currently with Habersham EMS, Anderson said.
“There is no reduction in staff associated with this,” Anderson said.
“All in all, I think it’s going to be a good marriage,” Black said. “The change is going to be the biggest for EMS personnel. We’re going into another department. We’re creating a new department, but basically we’re going into the fire department, so that’s going to be the biggest change.”
Black, Anderson and Sutton all agree that the new transition should create new opportunities for both fire and EMS personnel, while continuing to improve the level of service for the people of Habersham County.