Va. County Working to Boost EMS Response Times

In Prince George, in only 31 percent of the EMS calls did crews arrive less than the national standard of 8 minutes and 59 seconds.

May 19--PRINCE GEORGE -- Last year, Yvonne Goodman buried her sister almost two months after burying her father.

Goodman, a nurse, received a call Aug. 26 from her sister telling her that this would be the last time they would talk.

Goodman called 911 before she raced the 13.5 miles to her sister's home in Birchett Estates. When she got there, her sister was still breathing, but was actively seizing.

Goodman called 911 again.

It would be nearly a half hour from the first 911 call before an ambulance crew would arrive.

Goodman's sister died that same day.

According to EMS records, a police officer arrived at the home at 4:45 p.m., 18 minutes after the call was dispatched. A Fort Lee ambulance crew arrived 23 minutes after the first 911 call, at 4:50 p.m.

Goodman could not understand how it took almost a half hour before her sister received medical attention.

"I hope you realize that we are not a small farming community anymore," Goodman told the Prince George Board of Supervisors in November 2013.

And she wasn't alone.

"Citizens ... voiced their concerns about lengthy response times from both Fire and EMS units housed at current stations," James B. Owens, director of Fire and EMS, wrote in a January report. "Many examples given were delayed calls for service that eventually resulted in citizens' deaths."

Prince George County is going through a transition in emergency services in what was once a largely rural county that relied on volunteer firefighters and paramedics.

Now the county is growing and can no longer reliably depend on volunteers to carry the entire burden for emergency services. Response times have increased, putting citizens at risk while emergency officials work to improve service.

Other citizens have sounded off complaints about skyrocketing insurance premiums. Changes to the standards insurance companies use to gauge how safe a particular home is left many homeowners in the state Route 10 area with a 100-percent to 125-percent increase in insurance rates. An estimated 1,551 homes in this area were outside a 5-mile radius from a fire station and were rated at the highest risk level.

Gabrielle Heath, who lives in River's Edge, saw her insurance, and that of many of her neighbors in the Beechwood Manor and Jordan on the James subdivisions, go up.

"One person had been canceled, another had gone up a tremendous amount, almost 100 percent, another 200 percent," Heath said. "In River's Edge, most of us are elderly, and have lived here for years and years and years. With everything going up, there's going to be a huge hardship."

With two more subdivisions expected to join the subdivisions in the area in the next couple of years, the number of affected people could keep growing.

"With your stations being as spread out as far as they are, you have to start filling those gaps," Owens said.

The rural county seems to be approaching a tipping point. The growing suburban elements in Prince George have increasingly pulled resources into certain parts of the county, forcing a transition that many rural counties in America are experiencing, Owens said.

"We are going through the same growth challenges that every other rural county in America is having. It is such a widespread issue nationwide. With the decline in revenues and the economy the way it is, it is just hard for localities to continue to fund these type of core services," Owens said.

At the end of the day, how well the department is able to balance the need for service and the resources they are given is measured in minutes and seconds.

In 2013, Prince George Fire and EMS handled 2,810 of 2,994 EMS calls for service, the 2013 Fire and EMS annual report said.

Of those answered EMS calls, only 31 percent of the response times to the scene were less than the national standard of 8 minutes and 59 seconds. Forty percent of the response times were between 9 and 15 minutes, while another 29 percent were greater than 15 minutes.

The department was able to reduce the average response time from 12 minutes and 50 seconds to 11 minutes and 45 seconds, according to the report.

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