Ambulance service status spurs task force resolve

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Jan 17, 2017 at 9:07 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Ambulance Task Force met Tuesday for what was expected to be an update from MedicOne Medical Response owner Jim Reeves on progress being made toward fulfillment of the company’s contractual obligations to the county.

Instead, task force members received news that Reeves was unable to attend and MedicOne’s ability to fulfill its contract is more limited now than it was when he last addressed the task force in November.

Under questioning from County Commissioner Jason Harris, who chairs the commission’s Ambulance Committee, MedicOne Operations Manager Ken Tipton said the company is two paramedics short of the number needed to staff two ambulances 24-hours daily and a third ambulance during periods of peak demand as required by its contract.

He said the company has increased its starting bonuses and its advertisements for employment in an attempt to resolve the staffing shortage, but had not received any applications.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley was the first to express frustration. “This is our third meeting we’ve gone through the same issues. We’re getting the same answers. … Are we going to go on like this or are we going to start working on plan B?” Hensley asked.

Harris responded by saying he was ready to move on and begin gathering figures on a publicly owned ambulance service “and until then find a way to get (MedicOne) back up.”

“They’re in a little worse shape now than two months ago, down two paramedics instead of one, And Carter County is running routine calls here (now) for nursing homes,” Harris said.

But as the task force began to delve into possibilities, including grants for equipment, land for a station, wages, benefits and training, County Attorney Doug Shultz advised them to stop their deliberations.

“This was a work session to begin with. State law on county committee meetings requires notice. Our notice was for a work session. I would not deliberate any decisions,” Shults said.

When County Mayor Greg Lynch clarified the meeting included both a County Commission committee and communitywide task force of government leaders and emergency response professionals, Shults responded, “The task force is its own government entity and should stop deliberating and give notice.

“This seems like a very important issue. I would advertise it,” Shults said.

Hensley requested the next meeting be scheduled as soon as possible. Harris set the date for Jan. 31. Lynch told Shults the county would advertise the meeting notice.

Hensley and Harris both said they would like to the see the task force make a decision on what it would like to do at the next meeting and Harris added he would like to share that information with MedicOne, whose contract will expire in April 2019.

“Problems have already gotten worse. If problems keep going the way they are going, we will have to move faster, as fast as we can,” Harris said.

Lynch said he favored building a station and would like the task force to make that decision and set a time frame at its next meeting.

County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee member Kenneth Garland recommended “we go ahead and buy the land.”

Unicoi County Memorial Hospital CEO Eric Carroll said the hospital may be able to help with building sites available at is new location off Jackson Love Highway on the south end of Erwin.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.