In their zeal to get the budget in order, Sedgwick County’s leaders cannot afford to shortchange public safety, including the ability of Emergency Medical Services to come quickly whenever a resident anywhere in the county calls 911.
So it was a surprise to learn from an article by Deb Gruver in the Sunday Eagle about what happened when Emergency Medical Services Director Scott Hadley asked for two new 12-hour crews for next year and then, as the budget process progressed, scaled back his request to one new crew: County commissioners passed a $408 million budget last month providing for no new EMS crews.
An EMS crew doesn’t come cheap ($819,877). And it’s unrealistic to expect that every county department head is going to get what he says he wants or even needs in any budget year, let alone one in which County Manager William Buchanan was determined to erase a $9.3 million deficit.
Still, when “escalating demand is stressing the system as manifested by degradation of response time, increased employee absences and turnover rates along with increased customer complaints,” as the budget book puts it, it’s fair for the public to wonder how well its safety is going to be served by more of the status quo.
And call volume is expected to increase 3 to 5 percent annually, as decreasing federal funding from Medicare further squeezes EMS resources.
As it is, projections cast doubt on how well the county can keep up with the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services’ call for emergency response times of less than nine minutes 90 percent of the time.
Through August, the county EMS had met that goal 94.76 percent of the time this year for high-acuity calls (such as chest pain and difficulty breathing) in the urban area. But next year it’s projected to be down to 85 percent for such urban calls, with comparable declines in response time compliance for suburban and rural parts of the county. When the average response time for rural ambulance calls has been 10.77 minutes, as it was through August this year, it’s worrisome that the projection for next year is that 20 percent of rural calls will take longer than 16 minutes.
To their credit, officials are trying to look at other ways to help EMS handle the demand, including by working with senior citizen groups to curb 911 calls when what the caller really needs is a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Like the problem of people calling 911 to complain about Fourth of July fireworks, such calls signal the failure among some in the community to understand the point of the 911 and EMS systems.
With no money in the budget for more EMS crews for 2013, it will be up to county leaders to watch EMS and its response times closely, and to get it more help as public safety demands.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman