ROGERSVILLE — If somebody in Bulls Gap or St. Clair dies because it took 40 minutes for an ambulance to reach them instead of seven minutes, family members may be asking 13 Hawkins County commissioners to justify how they voted Monday morning.
On Monday the county commission voted 13-7 to exclude Lifeguard Ambulance Service — which has an ambulance stationed in Bulls Gap — from receiving a franchise to operate in the county.
There was quite a bit of discussion and debate prior to Monday’s vote, and some commissioners attempted to make a good case for excluding Lifeguard.
But there was considerable political pressure exerted on commissioners to eliminate the competition for the other two long established local ambulance services — Church Hill EMS and especially the financially distressed Hawkins County EMS, which covers the western half of the county where Lifeguard began establishing a foothold last year.
Lifeguard made its entry into Hawkins County last summer after county commissioners received complaints from Bulls Gap and Phipps Bend about Hawkins County EMS’s response times from Rogersville.
The first thing Lifeguard did was station an ambulance in Bulls Gap, but later it opened a station in Rogersville, in the heart of Hawkins County EMS territory.
Retired teacher Almeda Dixon of St. Clair pleaded with commissioners Monday not to exclude Lifeguard, which responds to her community from Bulls Gap. Dixon said it took Hawkins County EMS an hour and 10 minutes on one occasion to respond when her elderly sister fell down.
In another situation involving her sister, Dixon said Lifeguard responded within five minutes.
“I think three services will benefit the county,” Dixon said. “The response time of Lifeguard to our community ... is five to seven minutes to where I live. Minutes could be a life or death situation. You’re talking about 45 minutes (for Hawkins EMS) from Rogersville, down to seven minutes.”
Dixon added, “If we have an accident in St. Clair, and Hawkins County EMS is covered up, people could die. We need the service bad. Please don’t vote them out.”
In January the Hawkins County Commission adopted new ambulance regulations requiring any EMS service operating in the county to be approved by the county commission by June 30.
Over the past several weeks, the commission’s Public Safety Committee has gone through the process of evaluating the credentials and financial stability of the three services that applied for Hawkins County franchises.
Monday morning the commission was presented with the committee’s recommendation to give all three services a one-year franchise. Under the recommendation, each of the services would then be up for an evaluation and franchise renewal next year.
Instead, the commission approved Commissioner Michael Herrell’s amendment excluding Lifeguard from receiving a franchise and giving Lifeguard 30 days to cease operation in Hawkins County.
Herrell claimed that Lifeguard has stolen employees from Hawkins EMS and other area services, and he accused Lifeguard of being “ambulance chasers” by maneuvering units to steal calls from Hawkins EMS.
“The bottom line is, Hawkins County EMS has been here, Church Hill EMS has been here,” Herrell said. “We put rules and regulations in place to try to get this fixed and under control. As far as I know, these rules and regulations are in place starting June 30. So if we’ve got them, why do we keep trying to say they can’t do it? If they can’t do it, I have talked to (Church Hill EMS director) Fred Arnold, and he said he can cover the county if he had to. If (Hawkins County EMS) can’t obey the rules and regulations, we’ll have a meeting, and they’ve got to be voted out.”
Hawkins County EMS Director Wayne Elam told the commission he has “plans” to resolve ambulance coverage issues in Bulls Gap and St. Clair.
Elam said “multiple problems” within Hawkins County EMS have been identified since the evaluation process began.Those problems are being resolved, Elam added, and a lot of those problems are “financial.”
“We’ve found some money out there, and we’re going to try to get fixed to where we can cover those areas,” Elam told the commission Monday. “I’ve said all along this is a good thing for us because we’ve found a lot of problems that we are fixing.”Herrell asked Elam if he would be placing a substation on the south side of the Hugh B. Day Bridge to serve Bulls Gap and St. Clair.
“It is in the plans,” Elam replied. “Once again, it’s all financial, but it is in the plans. At the very least a first responder type unit.”
Commissioner B.D. Cradic noted that Lifeguard bills about twice as much as Church Hill EMS for the same service, and he couldn’t support that.
“To me this is just like Lifeguard took a double-barrel shotgun, loaded and cocked, and stuck it in some of these people’s backs by charging so much difference in the price,” Cradic said. “If this goes on, we will break a lot of people. Their homes will have liens on them.”
Bulls Gap Mayor Mike Solomon said if he’s having a heart attack, he doesn’t care how much the ambulance costs as long as it gets to him quickly. Solomon said his town isn’t big enough for Church Hill or Hawkins County to place an ambulance there, but Lifeguard was willing to serve his town and the southwest portion of the county.
“If this (commission) chooses to exclude them, look at all the people that’s going to affect in the lower part of the county,” Solomon told the commission. “Not just Bulls Gap, but St, Clair, and Persia even. What happens when there’s a blockage on the bridge over here? We had no service over there until Lifeguard came. I think this commission needs to think about that and evaluate all of them on even ground for the best service for the whole county. Not just one section or another.”
Lifeguard Director Jason Kimbrell said his service is currently averaging 32 transports per week.
“If 32 transports is damaging the financial viability of an EMS service, there’s some deep issues going on. What you get from us is improved response times. You’re getting three ambulances added to the system. You’re covering an under-served area that has no ambulances.”
Kimbrell said the decision will not only put 30 people out of work, but also make Hawkins County less safe. He also said the move to vote out Lifeguard was motivated by politics, not by what’s in the best interest of the population.“I understand the challenges that you guys have politically,” he added. “Church Hill and Hawkins County (EMS) have been in here a good number of years. But it’s a new day, today, and I don’t think anybody could argue that Hawkins County isn’t a safer place today than it ever has been.”
Commissioners who voted in favor of excluding Lifeguard were Herrell, Cradic, Dwight Carter, Eugene Christian, Fred Castle, Jeff Barrett, Danny Alvis, Greg Fletcher, Linda Kimbro, Joe McLain, Glenda Davis, Mark Linkous, and Charlie Newton.
Those who were in favor of keeping Lifeguard were Syble Vaughan-Trent, Stacy Vaughan, John Metz, Shane Bailey, Darrell Gilliam, Gary Hicks and Bob Palmer. Dawson Fields abstained.