Ambulance response times raise concerns in Milam County

KBTX Rockdale ambulance

ROCKDALE, Texas (KBTX) – In an emergency, every second counts. But what happens when the help you call for doesn’t show up?

Firefighters with the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department and several residents are sounding the alarm in what they say is an all-hands-on-deck emergency. According to Herbert Vaughn, Fire Chief for the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department, since April, the firefighters have responded to 84 medical calls, which is not a part of their normal tour of duty. There were 28 instances where there was no available ambulance to respond to emergencies. In 12 cases, firefighters went above and beyond the call of duty and transported patients to hospitals in fire trucks and their personal vehicles, said the chief.

American Medical Response is the ambulance service provider for the county. AMR and Milam County have had a working relationship since 2005 and renewed their most recent contract in 2018. As part of the contract, AMR is supposed to staff three ambulances in the county by providing nine EMTs and nine paramedics, according to officials.

Vaughn says the increase of calls has put stress on the department’s already limited resources.

“County-wide, our fire departments are responding to multiple EMS calls. Some of our departments, the smaller departments, don’t have as much training, don’t have as much equipment, and it’s very taxing on them,” said Vaughn. “The long waits we have to wait for before an ambulance gets here. It’s no fault on the ambulance service itself. The crews are fantastic. They’re great to work with, but we need more. And with the long waits, somebody’s going to end up dying.”

Vaughn says fire personnel usually don’t handle medical calls, but the department will continue to serve the community’s needs by any means necessary.

“We’ve had numerous calls where we had to put them in the back of a pickup truck, the front seat of a rescue truck, or somebody’s car just to get them to the helipad cause without an ambulance, how do you get them there,” said Vaughn.

Recently, Tammie Jefferson and Larry Wilcox’s sister, Charlesetta Mayberry, had a medical emergency at a local nursing home. The ambulance that was supposed to be staged in Rockdale was staged near Falls County, nearly 40 miles away, due to an ambulance and staffing shortage there. The Rockdale VFD responded immediately and did all they could, but unfortunately, Mayberry passed away before the ambulance arrived. Her family says they felt helpless watching their sister suffer, knowing they could do nothing about it.

“I was with my sister watching her pass away waiting for ambulance service,” said Jefferson. “I was with her, holding her, telling her that help was on the way. Then to find out there is no ambulance in town to help my sister. By the time that helicopter come from Temple my sister has passed away.”

“It’s unexplainable that you are sitting there and watching your family member suffer and about to die,” said Wilcox. “It’s a hurting feeling. Where is it? Where are they at? You run outside. You run around looking down the road looking for them, and no one shows up.”

Judith Matula’s husband Charles had to wait over an hour when they called for an ambulance.

“On June 22, my husband just went away. He went into a coma and was completely despondent. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move,” said Matula. “We didn’t know what to do, and I don’t think anybody realizes the terror that you feel until you’re in a situation like that and you don’t have any help.”

Michael Stewart is the second assistant chief for the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department. He says he saw long wait times affect other families but never thought it would happen to him after his two-year-old daughter fell and hit her head at a family function.

“I understand that they’re busy with all this COVID, but I think that they could do better by making sure all their ambulances are staffed cause I know sometimes they’re not all staffed,” said Stewart.

Milam County Judge Steve Young says AMR is in breach of its contract by not having proper staffing and ambulances available. He says county leaders are scheduled to meet with the company next week to demand a resolution.

“I’ve had several discussions with AMR. They indicate this is a shortage of help. That’s something they’re going to have to remedy cause they’re going to have to live up to their contract. We had talked to them on several occasions in the past, which is not a whole lot of progress,” said Young. The contract is between the City of Rockdale, the City of Cameron, the County of Milam, and AMR. It’s a coalition, and so we wrote them on a Friday of last week and demanded they comply with the contract. They wrote back yesterday and said, let’s sit down and talk this over. So we’re going to do that Monday.”

Residents say they’re grateful for the service of the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department who has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

“We appreciate everything that the fire department is doing. We appreciate them to the fullest, and they go out of their way to try to help, try to provide, try to serve every community,” said Wilcox. “We appreciate that.”

“Thirty minutes after the EMS didn’t come, all of a sudden the fire department showed up, and they were really incredible,” said Matula. “They probably kept me from just really going off the deep end because we didn’t know what to do. They were so beneficial, and they do so so much.”

AMR, the ambulance provider for Milam County, released a statement saying staffing issues due to the pandemic created a significant nationwide shortage of workers.

Like many healthcare and emergency medical service providers, we are seeing the impacts of COVID-19 on available staffing nationwide. The loss of EMS education programs for over a year and the decrease in EMS enrollment have created a significant nationwide resource gap for trained EMTs and Paramedics. Paramedics take up to two years of training before certification and require hands-on instruction, so when the schools closed, we lost that new pipeline of recruits.

AMR is working hard to attract more candidates to central Texas and Milam County, specifically. We are currently offering sign-on bonuses in addition to competitive pay and robust benefits packages. Unfortunately, for every paramedic we hire, one is hired away by a hospital, fire department or another provider who is also short-staffed. The industry is essentially solving one problem and creating another somewhere in the state or other part of the country because we are all trying to hire a finite workforce with few new recruits.

In addition, we are still very much in a pandemic disaster, with many of our crews and their families contracting Covid. As hospitals become overloaded, it impacts all ambulance providers because it takes longer – sometimes hours – to find an available bed for patients transported in. Further complicating the issue is the fact that our call volume has increased more than 27 percent month-to-date and because our community lacks a hospital, our teams are having to travel greater distances to safely deliver patients to definitive care.AMR Spokesperson

Written by Donnie Tuggle

Categories: Community, Health

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