WHEN RICHLAND County and Columbia resume negotiations over a new fire contract in January, they should not only continue the joint service, but also merge fire and emergency medical services.
The need for fire and EMS to be under one command became clear recently as controversy swirled around whether a delay in transporting a 3-year-old led to his death. Although it turned out that the delay did not cause Jadan Myers-Pugh's death - Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said he already was dead, from swine flu, when his mother found him - the whole heart-breaking matter shone a spotlight on the senseless lack of coordination between the Columbia Fire Department and Richland County EMS. It's only a matter of time before that does cost lives - if it hasn't already.
In Jadan's case, firefighters arrived on the scene first and administered CPR until county EMS workers arrived. With only two EMS workers on an ambulance and both needed to care for Jadan, they had to wait for a second ambulance to arrive so someone could drive the first ambulance to the hospital. EMS policy forbids firefighters from driving ambulances - even when patients are in critical condition and need the care of both EMS workers.
Firefighters and EMS are dispatched to emergency calls to increase the likelihood of saving lives. Yet there's at least one policy that poses a barrier to their ability to deliver the best service possible. If the two departments were under one administration, such barriers would be much easier to remove.
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County Council members are open to a change in county policy that would allow firefighters to be trained so they can drive ambulances in dire situations. While that's a good idea, it doesn't go far enough.
It would be more efficient and practical to merge these two functions. And the timing couldn't be better since the joint fire agreement is on the table.
Some have suggested the county should back out of the fire service agreement, but that would be a mistake. It's highly unlikely that the county could provide fire protection cheaper and more efficiently than the city can under the joint agreement.
While there have been challenges, the arrangement the county and city established in 1990 created a superior, seamless system that ensures high-quality protection for residents and greatly reduced insurance rates. Expanding the pact to include EMS would be a logical next step in providing seamless emergency services. It also would be in keeping with the two governments' ongoing efforts - not always successful - to streamline services in the best interest of taxpayers.
Combining fire and EMS is hardly a novel idea. A number of communities across the country have done so. In Lexington County, firefighters and EMS workers fall under the common administration of public safety director Bruce Rucker. Mr. Rucker said Lexington County firefighters are cross-trained to drive ambulances. That's the sort of common-sensical thing that happens when EMS and fire report to the same boss.
While there would be many details to work through, Columbia and Richland County should embark upon a mission to marry their fire and EMS departments. The idea won't sit well with those more interested in protecting turf and jobs. But it's not about them. It's about saving lives.