Township officials discuss EMS options

A solution to Clarion County’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) crisis might be in the distance but there was a healthy debate on the matter at the Clarion County SORCE building Monday night (May 22).

Clarion County Public Safety Director Jeff Smathers informed a group of officials from Clarion County townships that Clarion County needs to form an EMS authority in order to fund and sustain the EMS services in the county.

Currently, Clarion County has five ambulance services all of Clarion and Forest Counties (Clarion Hospital, Knox, Southern Clarion County, East Brady and Emlenton). The Clarion Hospital EMS covers most of the eastern half of Clarion County and most of Forest County. Knox covers most of the northwestern portion of the county while Southern Clarion County covers most of the southern portion of the county and Emlenton covers some of the western portion of the county. The county EMS has to cover 824 square miles of Clarion and Forest Counties.

Licking Township Supervisor Len Elder asked Smathers what the response time would be for an ambulance in the southern part of the county responding to an emergency in the northern end of the county. Smathers said it could take upward of an hour and 15 minutes for a response. However, he said the EMS dispatchers would attempt to pull EMS services from a neighboring county. Or he would attempt to crisscross the Advanced Life Support (ALS) and Basic Life Support (BLS) crews in the county.

One way the county and the local fire departments are trying to combat the EMS shortage is the formation of Quick Response Services (QRS). The QRS services are mostly operated out of the local fire departments and they go out on calls to get patients stable until the EMS services arrive. The QRS services are allowed to perform CPR, administer an AED (defibrillators), administer first aid. The QRS service cannot transport a patient and they are not allowed to administer drugs.

Areas that have QRS services are Limestone, Hawthorn, Millcreek Township, Corsica, Strattanville and Washington Township.

Smathers told the assembled officials that many of the EMTs and paramedics who work on the local ambulance services work on more than one in order to make ends meet.

Beaver Township Supervisor Chairman Jim Weeter asked Smathers if anyone could drive an ambulance or if they had to have training.

Smathers said those drivers have to have emergency vehicle driver training. Smathers said the drivers in an ALS unit have to have medical training because there have to be two medically trained individuals on an ALS unit. However, a BLS unit does not require full EMT training but Smathers did say drivers on a BLS unit are normally required to know CPR, run an AED, etc.

Smathers felt that if the county would create an authority, ambulance services would be able to pay their skilled personnel a higher wage. As it is, Clarion County EMTs are making on average $12 to $15 an hour while the state average pay for EMTs is $18 to $20 for the rest of the state. Paramedics in Clarion County make $15 to $18 per hour and the state average is $22 to $25.

One of the supervisors in the audience asked what the cost of living was in the rest of the state compared to Clarion County. Smathers said that someone starting work in a convenience store in the area makes over $13 per hour.

According to Smathers, one of the biggest challenges facing the local EMS services is keeping the EMTs and paramedics from leaving the area for better pay. Smathers said DuBois EMS services are paying five to six dollars more per hour than Clarion County.

Another problem Clarion County EMS services face is the fact that many times when there is an ambulance call where a patients vital signs are not taken (such as for lift assist calls) the ambulance services, under Pennsylvania law, are not allowed to charge the patient for the ambulance call.

Smathers said when it comes to funding the EMS services is a challenge because there is no consistent revenue stream. Smathers said there were around 23-percent of county residents are members of an ambulance service.

Smathers believes the EMS Authority formed by Ross Township, West View, Millvale Borough, Ross Township and Ohio Township should be the blueprint Clarion County should follow.

Under the Ross Township EMS authority, households pay a flat fee of around $60 per year for EMS services.

If Clarion County were to form and EMS authority and collect $55 per household, the total collected would be around $841,000.

One of the supervisors in attendance asked what the authority would do concerning the college students who live in the area part of the year.

Smathers said they would have to be charged a fee the same as full-time county residents.

A question was asked to Smathers as to how the finances of a municipal authority would work. Smathers said the books on all of the ambulance services would have to be examined before the authority could move forward.

Licking/Piney Township Secretary Karen Best asked who was going to examine the books.

Smathers said the authority would have to form a board that would be in charge of going over the finances of all services involved and if those services were not willing to have their books examined then they would not be able to join the authority.

The Ross/Westview Authority serves 54,000 residents in 25 square miles. Clarion County, on the other hand, has 37,156 residents in a 610 square mile area (not including Forest County).

Forest County is in the process of forming an ambulance authority which will include Farmington Township in Clarion County. The proposed authority is scheduled to be headquartered out of Farmington Township using its ambulance garage.