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Surgoinsville mayor still wants an ambulance, but HCEMS says too costly

Jeff Bobo • May 28, 2020 at 8:00 PM

SURGOINSVILLE — If a $90,000 county funding increase is recommended Friday for Hawkins County EMS, Surgoinsville Mayor Merrell Graham is asking that a stipulation be added requiring an ambulance to be stationed 24/7 at the town’s fire station.

HCEMS Director Jason Murrell told the Times News on Wednesday, however, that $90,000 wouldn’t pay even one-third of what it would cost to cover the salaries for a full-time ambulance in Surgoinsville.

Murrell said the request to the county commission for the increase in the 2020-21 county budget is to pay for a new ambulance that would replace a high-mileage unit in his fleet.

There are five full-time ambulances operating in Hawkins County  — one each in Mount Carmel, Church Hill, Rogersville, Persia, and Lake View. Murrell said the call volumes in Surgoinsville don’t justify the additional expense for a sixth unit.

On Friday, the commission’s Budget Committee will meet to vote on funding requests for the upcoming budget, including a $150,000 contribution to HCEMS, which received $60,000 from the county this fiscal year.

“They had the perfect setup here”

HCEMS was allowed to stage an ambulance at the downtown Surgoinsville Fire Department station rent-free, including the use of two upstairs apartments, but in early 2019 HCEMS removed its ambulance from the town.

The reason stated by HCEMS officials at the time was that the Surgoinsville zone had an average of fewer than two calls per day, for the 37873 zip code. Murrell said Wednesday it takes approximately five calls per day to adequately cover the expense of a 24-hour ambulance.

Graham doesn’t agree with the zip code statistics due to an error made years ago which assigned a substantial number of homes on the west end of Surgoinsville — as well as nearby unincorporated neighborhoods — a Rogersville zip code.

He told the Times News he believes the response times and safety of Surgoinsville residents, as well as residents in Carters Valley and Stanley Valley, have suffered as a result of the removal of Surgoinsville’s ambulance.

“They had a perfect setup here,” Graham said. “They had the ambulances placed strategically throughout the county, and taking ours out left a service gap right in the middle of the county. The call times for this area is much different. Nobody is going to argue with that. They know it is.”

Graham added, “If the county can afford to give them (HCEMS) more money, then they need to stipulate that a full-time ambulance be placed in Surgoinsville. It’s something that needs to be done, not only to better serve our city residents, but also the county residents who also relied on our ambulance when it was here.”

“We can’t afford the expense to provide an additional unit”

Murrell told the Times News Wednesday he’s not ruling out a sixth ambulance returning to Hawkins County at some point in the future, but he cannot promise when or even if.

Part of the problem is a drastic decline in the number of calls HCEMS is running. Another major problem is a nationwide shortage of paramedics and EMTs to man ambulances.

In order to staff a sixth full-time ambulance, HCEMS would have to pay overtime for all salaries, which alone would increase expenses by $300,000, according to Murrell.

In 2017, HCEMS ran approximately 11,000 calls, which decreased to 8,900 in 2019. Murrell said that since the pandemic hit this past March, however, HCEMS has seen a 60% decrease in call volume.

“If the call volume increases to support the sixth unit, then we will be more than glad to staff an additional unit,” Murrell said. “... But, if the revenue is not there, we can’t afford the expense to provide an additional unit.”

“Be very cautious when deciding on the budget”

Hawkins County Commissioner Valerie Goins, who represents Surgoinsville and also serves on the Budget Committee, told the Times News Wednesday that she too disagrees with the call volume by zip code argument.

“As we know, the zip codes are wacky for some of Surgoinsville city limits, and Surgoinsville doesn’t get credit for those calls,” Goins said. “I feel that we are going to have to be very cautious when deciding on the budget for 2020-21. We will possibly see what the sales tax (revenues) were for April at the meeting on Friday. Then we will have to weigh (funding) requests as we go through and decide on what we feel have to be completed first. And we do have to maintain a certain fund balance for the coming year as well.”

Commissioner Hannah Speaks, who also represents Surgoinsville, said she wants the town to have an ambulance, but she doesn’t want to add to what was reported earlier this month as a $494,977 deficit in the first draft of the county’s 2020-21 budget.

“We’ve ventured down the road of a county-run service, and I hope that we can continue to pursue that,” Speaks said. 

At least six full-time ambulances needed, study says

In November, an EMS Exploratory Committee comprised of medical and rescue agency experts presented to the county commission the results of a months-long study, which concluded that a minimum of six full-time ambulances is needed in Hawkins County to ensure low response times and adequate coverage.

The committee recommended awarding a three-year franchise extension to HCEMS. That extension would occur in conjunction with establishing a joint venture between the service and the county commission. Once the joint venture was in place, the franchise would be a moot point.

The committee also recommended the county commission commit to providing more annual funding to HCEMS and add HCEMS employees to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) in hopes of helping with employee retention.

The county would also provide cash-flow support when required and serve as a financial safety net for HCEMS.

To date the commission hasn’t acted on the exploratory committee’s recommendations.

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