City, rescue squad to meet

Published 11:08 pm Thursday, August 22, 2013

A policy change by the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue that would have been the death knell for the local volunteer rescue squad will be discussed in a private meeting today between the chiefs of both organizations.

Members of the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad turned up in force at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to ask for intervention in the new policy, which would relegate the volunteers to a last-resort agency that only responded to medical emergencies when all career staff in the downtown area were tied up.

The policy, issued by Fire Chief Cedric Scott less than five months after he took the helm of the department, likely would mean the volunteers would run less than a tenth of their current call volume, the volunteers said.

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Such a move would mean less funding from other sources — after the city has already slashed funding and hampered the squad’s ability to raise funds, its leaders say — and fewer volunteers, as most would likely move on to other organizations where they could gain more experience in emergency medical care.

“The decisions I make are based on the obligation I have to life and safety,” Scott said Thursday. “I am still looking forward to working with Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad. I think they are a great value to our community.”

After a thorough assessment of the organization, response times to medical calls arose as an issue, he said. The volunteer rescue squad was one area of concern.

“Based on my concern for life safety, which of course is my top priority, I decided to make some organizational changes,” he said.

The move would require the city to staff its Medic 1 ambulance around the clock starting Sept. 1. Scott said he could shift personnel around so that no new hires, overtime or additional funding would be required.

Chief Jeff Brittingham of the rescue squad said Scott justified the move with a list of concerns Brittingham thought had been resolved. Topping the list were two instances of miscommunication in July that led to the rescue squad’s ambulance being unstaffed for a total of less than two hours.

“I don’t believe either time patient care was compromised,” Brittingham said. “We’ve already addressed each of these, and we’ve taken steps to prevent them from happening again.”

The rescue squad staffs its Market Street station on nights, weekends and holidays. Last year, it responded to 1,383 calls, vice president Barbara Smith said. Based on statistics from last year, the policy change would leave them with about 100 calls for the entire year.

Seven volunteers addressed City Council on Wednesday night to plead their case. Several pointed out that the 52-year-old rescue squad provided emergency medical services to the entire Nansemond County for many years before the fire department wanted anything to do with it.

As the county and then the city grew, the squad helped form the now-defunct Bennett’s Creek Volunteer Rescue Squad. It also purchased ambulances and staffed them in outlying areas, and some of those ambulances were given to the city when the fire department began to delve into emergency medical services.

The volunteer squad’s coverage area gradually shrank as the fire department added career medical staff. Its fundraising ability was limited after the city began charging patients for calls run by the volunteers, they said.

“Not many people are willing to donate to a volunteer agency that, when called upon, is going to send a bill for up to $800,” member Rusty Hundley said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The city then began cutting its contribution to the squad several years ago — from $100,000 to $50,000 and now to $40,000 — even though the city collects more than that on calls run by the volunteers, Hundley said.

“We see very little of the collections,” he said.

Other volunteers pointed out the less tangible services of the squad — providing training, positive role models for youth and a volunteer opportunity for young people. It also allows people investigating the field of health care to learn more about it, infection control officer Lawrence Daniels said.

Later in the meeting, two City Council members — Roger Fawcett and Mike Duman — voiced support for taking a closer look at the new policy.

“I don’t think it’s not going to come down without a cost to our city,” Fawcett said. “This is not a good outcome.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson interrupted him to say the meeting was not the appropriate forum to discuss the issue. Councilman Curtis Milteer and Vice Mayor Charles Brown noted that “council has no authority to interfere with the daily operation of the city,” as Milteer put it.

Duman approached the issue from another direction.

“It is our place to look at the fiscal impact of it,” he said. “We spend lots of money on fire and rescue. We don’t need to spend any more if we don’t have to. I just strongly suggest that we re-look at this before Sept. 1.”

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn recommended council honor Scott’s decision.

Brittingham said his meeting with Scott is set for Friday afternoon.

“I’m encouraged by the fact we went from ‘We’re done talking about it’ to ‘I’d like to discuss this tomorrow,’” he said.

Scott said the volunteers still will have an important role.

“I am looking forward to continuing our working relationship and strengthening our relationship,” he said. “We certainly don’t want that relationship to be shattered.”