Clarion Co. ambulance crisis called ‘critical situation’

Clarion County leaders gathered Monday to discuss the dwindling number of ambulance personnel and services in the county, especially in rural areas.

“We are all in a critical situation,” county commissioner Ed Heasley said at the gathering. “We must work together so the residents and visitors to Clarion County don’t receive the message ‘We will send the next available unit’ during an emergency call,” Heasley added.

But that is exactly what happened for two months last summer.

“During those two months we were uncovered more than we were covered,” said Steve Merryman of Shippenville Ambulance Service.

Jeff Smathers, Clarion County’s director of emergency Services, said that when a call for an ambulance is received the call is directed to the nearest ambulance service.

“If that service can’t cover then the call is directed to another service,” said Smathers, who added that there are five services in the county but in reality only four are usually available and sometimes only three to cover the entire county.

Smathers said a vacuum is created when an ambulance is on a call outside its own service area.

“There were six times last year when every ambulance was committed,” he said. “When that happens we have to pull from another county. They have the same problem. That creates a void there and they are reluctant to uncover their own county. They do send them however. Of course we do the same for them.”

Smathers said it is a “collective” problem. He said it is difficult to attract emergency medical technicians because the pay in rural areas doesn’t compare to the rate paid in urban areas.

Smathers said the second problem is that the reimbursement rate for an ambulance call is limited.

“They could make a call and bill Medicare $1,200 and get reimbursed just $200,” he said. He added that private insurers pay more but there are few of them in the area.

Merryman said the Shippenville service increased the pay rate for its EMTs to $12.50 an hour and the rate for paramedics from $13 an hour to $16 just to get crews.

Heasley, a firefighter for many years, said that providing a full-time 24/7 crew and equipment would cost about $400,000 to $500,000 per year, per unit.

Merryman said the problem is compounded because ambulance services must also pay their own Workmen’s Compensation insurance.

Smathers said many of the EMTs and paramedics work 24-hour shifts, and that allows them to work for more than one service.

“In the end they get burned out,” he said.

Clarion County entered into an agreement with the Department of Community and Economic Development to conduct a study of the need for both emergency medical and fire services. There is no cost to the county for the survey.

The county also formed the Clarion County Emergency Medical Service Task Force to work with municipal government with a goal of finding a solution to the crisis.

“The issues we are facing within Clarion County are not just local but something that is hitting the entire commonwealth,” said Heasley. “We must build a partnership to address the current problems and challenges facing us today.”