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County EMS sees higher call volume in 2021, but handled recent shortage of ambulances
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County EMS sees higher call volume in 2021, but handled recent shortage of ambulances

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WENTWORTH — On the morning of Oct. 10, an unusually high number of emergency medical calls to Rockingham County Emergency Medical Services resulted in a shortage of ambulances, officials said.

Dispatchers struggled that Sunday morning to get medical personnel to calls between 11 a.m. and noon, said Rockingham County’s Director of Emergency Services Rodney Cates.

Several units were already handling various calls on Oct. 10, when a vehicle collided with a house at the corner of Morgan Road and Grove Street in Eden, officials said. Dispatchers attempted to get an ambulance to the scene, but the nearest available rig had a 35-minute response time. Meanwhile, ambulances from the county’s three rescue squads were also on assignments and unavailable, officials said.

The Eden accident occurred at 11:22 a.m. when Jennifer Law Dishmon of Stoneville crossed the center line while traveling north on Morgan Road in a 2006 Nissan Acura. She struck a utility pole and mailbox before her vehicle stopped against a house in the 400 block of Morgan Road, according to D. J. Buck, an officer with the Eden Police Department.

Dishmon told Buck she didn’t know how the accident occurred. She was treated at UNC Rockingham Health Care for minor injuries and charged with driving left of the center.

Despite a flood of calls coming in that day, rescue personnel were able to eventually handle all emergencies, officials said.

And the high number of calls seen on Oct. 10 was rare for Rockingham, Cates said this week. He said calls are up overall this year by around 200 per month, compared to 2020.

Typically, the county runs eight advanced life support, or ALS, ambulances, he said. The county also has a basic life support truck, known as a BLS, and contracts with the Eden Rescue Squad and Madison/Rockingham Rescue Squad to use their convalescent units.

When the county runs short on such rescue vehicles, they try to spread them out at strategic points where they can provide the best access, countywide, Cates said.

For instance, EMS might station a unit at Harrison Cross Roads, between Eden and Reidsville, to provide quicker response times to those two communities.

Typically, two people are assigned to each ambulance – usually at least one paramedic and one EMT. Cates said he prefers to staff each with two paramedics. Cates said the county sometimes adds part-time staff to fortify the full-time certified staff during times of heavy demand.

“Our citizens are not seeing a decrease in service,” Cates said. “If they have a need, there are units available to assist them. Paramedics or EMT crews are available to assist our citizens at any time.”

For days like Oct. 10, Rockingham County has agreements with other counties, including Caswell, Stokes and Guilford, to provide mutual aid. The program is reciprocal with Rockingham at the ready for those counties, Cates said.

The Madison/Rockingham, Eden and Reidsville rescue squads also have one BLS ambulance each to help. But often, if two or three units are busy transporting patients to hospitals in Greensboro, Durham or other outlying areas, those vehicles are tied up for several hours, Cates said.

Add to that, hospitals are facing staffing shortages and sometimes need to transfer patients to other facilities, another cause for possible delays, Cates said.

During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Rockingham’s ambulances and personnel were required to return to the main EMS base to undergo a decontamination process for vehicles and staff before going back on duty, another slow down, Cates said.

Such decontamination takes at least 30 minutes per unit and the team, Cates noted, explaining the process takes longer when lots of equipment is used on a call.

With fewer COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, EMS has had fewer decontaminations to slow staff down, Cates said.

But personnel shortages are still a problem his department faces, Cates said.

“Our dedicated employees are covering vacant shifts,” he said.

The county has thankfully provided a bonus program to reward such staff for picking up extra shifts, Cates said.

“The benefit of that is our citizens are not having any reduced services whatsoever,” Cates said.

And call volume with the pandemic has been way up, Cates said. He compared calls between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 for 2020 and 2021 and found that Rockingham EMS received 2,124 more calls for service this year than last. That amounts to an average of 212 additional calls for ambulance service per month, Cates said.

“Through the great teamwork of emergency responders which is made up of 911 telecommunicators, first responders from fire departments and rescue squads and our EMS crews, our citizens continue to receive efficient medical response to their emergent or perceived emergent situations,” Cates said.

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