IT TOOK longer than it should have, but it is reassuring to know that Columbia-Richland firefighters finally are allowed to drive ambulances to help save lives during emergencies.
This should have always been possible, since firefighters often are among the first to respond and could provide crucial backup when both emergency medical services workers staffing an ambulance are needed to care for a patient who must be transported to the hospital.
There long had been concern about this potentially deadly bureaucratic obstacle, but it didn’t receive communitywide attention until about three years ago, when 3-year-old Jadan Myers-Pugh died after fire and EMS officials waited four minutes for a second ambulance to arrive before taking the boy to the hospital. Both EMS workers needed to tend to Jadan, and the other emergency responders on the scene were not allowed to drive the ambulance. EMS policy prohibited it — even in dire emergencies.
Although the Richland County coroner revealed that Jadan already was dead, from swine flu, when his mother found him, the sad affair put a spotlight on the unacceptable lack of coordination between the Columbia-Richland Fire Department and Richland County EMS. That led city and county officials to change the senseless policy.
While the governments only recently signed off on a formal agreement allowing firefighters to drive ambulances, fire officials and county EMS leaders already had taken steps to implement the change. Thanks to a program that started a year ago, 175 Columbia-Richland firefighters now are allowed to drive ambulances. Also, about 20 firefighters have been trained as emergency medical technicians. Michael Byrd, Richland County director of emergency services, said he wants to have one emergency medical technician on each early arriving engine company.
We commend city and county officials for taking these potentially life-saving steps. Even so, this is only a beginning. City and county leaders must now turn their attention to the larger problem that allowed such a policy to exist in the first place: The fire and EMS departments are separate agencies, controlled by separate governments. As long as the city runs the joint fire department, and the county runs EMS, there will always be an increased risk of some barrier existing that threatens the safe and efficient delivery of emergency services.
We had hoped city and county officials would have addressed this issue as they negotiated a new five-year fire contract, which was recently completed. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t. As we pointed out after the new fire deal was signed, there is room for improvement.
Richland and Columbia can significantly strengthen this community’s ability to respond to emergencies by merging the fire and EMS departments and placing them under one administration. This would allow officials to create a seamless, efficient, nimble system capable of meeting the overall emergency needs throughout Richland County.