County’s medical responder program in jeopardy, says chief
By Steve Short
When your family experiences a medical emergency, you expect someone to respond and help.
That response could take longer in the near future, the Gibson Co. Fire Chief said recently.
Chief Bryan Cathey made a plea to Gibson Co. commissioners in March to continue employing eight full-time firefighters, five of whom have Medical First Responder training and answer calls to provide emergency medical help.
Most of the county’s firefighters are volunteers who answer emergency calls at night, or when their daytime work schedules allow. To help with daytime emergencies, the county hired eight firefighters in Jan. 2016 to work from 8 am. until 4:30 pm. at the county fire stations.
Funding for the full-time firefighters’ salaries for two years (2016-17) was from a federal American Firefighter Grant for Adequate Staffing. The overall grant was about $477,000 and provided salaries and some equipment.
The full-time firefighters earn $11 per hour plus medical, retirement and insurance benefits that increase the cost.
The grant funding that pays the full-time salaries ends Dec. 31, 2017. To continue employing 8 full-time firefighters, the county would have to pay roughly $220,000, said Chief Cathey, though the exact cost will be calculated in upcoming budget talks.
“If I do not get to keep at least the five medically trained firefighters, it will almost make the medical first responder program nonexistent between 7 am. and 5 pm. Monday through Friday,” said Chief Bryan Cathey. “It will be only me and any medical responder taking a day off work to cover all of Gibson County on medical first responder calls. That would almost shut the medical first responder program down in Gibson Co. in the day time.”
The county provides EMS ambulance service apart from the response by firefighters. But ambulances in the county are spending more time traveling to Jackson now, due to the closing of the Gibson General Hospital in Trenton, said Chief Cathey.
“Due to the closing of Gibson General Hospital, our ambulances have to go to Jackson a lot more often. That is causing a longer response time coming from Jackson back to Gibson Co. on some calls,” said Chief Cathey. “Our medical first responders are able to get to the emergency quickly, providing medical attention to the patient before the ambulance arrives, and providing information to the ambulance that is responding.”
Cathey said before full-time firefighters were hired by the county, volunteers could answer an emergency call and leave the station in 10 to 15 minutes. The full-time firefighters can respond quicker on average, because they are already at fire stations.
“We have someone on scene in the daytime now in most cases in less than ten minutes, or about the time it was taking us to get to the station to respond (with volunteers),” said Cathey.
He said the county Fire Dept. has seen the number of emergency calls more than double in four years, going from 634 calls in 2013 to a record number, 1,611 calls in 2016.
“The main reason for (the increase in calls) is due to Gibson General Hospital closing,” said Cathey. “It has caused our ambulances to stay tied up almost all of the time, taking people to Jackson. The age and size of our population we serve is another factor. Our fire-rescue calls have not gone up much; it is our medical calls that have more than doubled.”
Full-time, paid firefighters have provided many needed services, Cathey said, including installing 1,200 free smoke alarms, giving safety presentations to communities, and seeing that fire station vehicles are properly maintained. They also make public assist calls to help the elderly.
“In my opinion, Gibson Co. needs to hire the eight full-time firefighters as permanent employees,” Cathey told commissioners. “It needs to be with the stipulation that the three firefighters, who have not passed the medical first responder test, pass the test in one year and become medical first responders, or they will lose their job.”
At a meeting of county firefighters and station chiefs late last year, some opposition was expressed about continuing to employ full time, paid firefighters. But many fire station chiefs supported having paid firefighters.
“I don’t see the County Commission raising taxes to continue having the full-time firefighters,” said County Mayor Tom Witherspoon earlier this year. He said the hiring of full-time firefighters could be discussed by county leaders, and officials might pursue obtaining more grant funding to continue employing paid firefighters.”