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Emergency volunteers' needs must be addressed

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Included among the missions and goals of Carroll's Emergency Services Board, one member wants to see more of the volunteers' problems solved.

Members of the advisory board spent considerable time at their April 22 called meeting poring over a mission statement requested by the county supervisors, but Markel Cochran believed the proposal did not address concerns he's heard from volunteers.

"This is good," Cochran reacted after hearing the proposed goals and objectives. "You've put a lot of work into it, and it's a waste of time."

Other board members answered, however, they thought developing a mission statement and goals to help the volunteers was the whole purpose of the discussion.

Cochran said the comment wasn't meant to be personal, but volunteer input in the ESB's goals is crucial.

Debbie Brady, the advisory board's chair, focused on the need for rescue squads to do a better job getting reimbursements from private insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare. That would allow the county to better provide for the needs of the emergency medical responders, she said.

At the outset of the meeting, before discussing insurance coverage in general, Brady praised Laurel Captain Paul Cooper for his rescue squad's attention to billing issues. She did so because Laurel sent out bills to insurance companies for 95 percent of its calls.

Later, as Lola Sutphin presented the proposed goals and objectives for the advisory board, she explained that she had worked closely with County Administrator Gary Larrowe on them.

Matching an earlier change by the supervisors for the advisory board's focus, the proposed mission statement notes that the ESB is to provide assistance in making recommendations on fire and rescue issues involving facilities, technology and equipment, as well as recruitment, retention and recognition of the people involved.

In terms of the goals and objectives, board members added target dates to have each item implemented.

The proposals and measurable goals under this section included:

• to make additional training opportunities available to boost rescue and firefighter certification levels through basic emergency medical technician classes, scheduling trainings, operational trainings and more.

• to recognize staff and volunteers for their accomplishments by holding an annual recognition program and creating an emergency services hall of fame, as well as possibly helping with volunteer training costs, sponsoring a friendly completion among fire and rescue organizations.

• to create a system "for retention and recruitment of highly qualified, motivated and respectful people that will ensure the continued operations of volunteer fire departments and rescue squads."

Measurable objectives listed here include holding a countywide emergency services recruitment event (possibly at the county fair), sending out a survey to current volunteers to find out what keeps them active and establishing a junior fire and rescue program with the schools.

• to finish a master plan for replacement of equipment and facility maintenance needs.

ESB members latched on to the survey idea as a means to measure the mood of volunteers and what they want to see happen. Somebody just needs to write the survey first, Sutphin noted.

Involving the volunteers in improving emergency services is something that the county has needed to do, Cochran said after the goals and objectives discussion.

Cochran said he's been to 10 meetings of various organizations and talked to volunteers at each. From what he's heard, the concerns of the volunteers remain.

"And we're not fixing the problems with the units," he said. "If we don't get the little things right, the big things are not going to take care of themselves."

Cochran feared that the ESB members were just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"We're setting goals, we're not talking to the volunteers," he said. "If the volunteers as a group were listening to us tonight, from what I've seen in person, half of them would be rolling around on the floor laughing and half of them would be throwing rocks at us."

The proposal did address one thing — training opportunities for the volunteers is a huge issue and a bottleneck right now. Cochran believes that offering more training needs to be put on a fast track, even if the county has to hire someone to do it.

That's in the works, answered Joe Roma, Carroll's emergency services director. The county is in the middle of setting up new training opportunities for volunteer agencies.

"It's always been up to the squads to do their own training," Roma said. "And until we started this board there was no training countywide."

Views of volunteers that Cochran has spoken to range from feeling micromanaged by the county to being ignored. Others feel that if they spoke out of turn, that they or their squad could face retaliation.

That's different from what county officials are hearing at a captains' meeting, said Kathy Surratt of the county administrator's office.

The mission and goals statement is fine, Cochran said. "What we need to be working on is making peace with the units, feeling out what we can do to help them..."

"I thought that's what we were trying to do," Roma responded.

Brady steered the meeting back to the concern of billing.

She asked county Supervisor Andy Jackson if the board of supervisors ever gets information at their meetings about the percentage of calls run in a month, which the squads turn in their billing paperwork for.

From January, for example, Brady knew of a squad that only turned in for reimbursement 12 percent of the total calls they ran.

This is an important issue, she said, because the higher percentage of billing that's turned in, the more the emergency agencies are going to get reimbursed from insurance. Brady understands that the county will not be able to get all the bills reimbursed, but the supervisors need to encourage the agencies to be more active in that area.

The supervisors aren't getting a report that reflects the total calls run to the total billed calls, Brady noted. "So there is no way, Andy, that you know what money was left on the table because it wasn't billed."

County officials hope that situation improves when squad representatives start submitting their billing online, Jackson noted.

Cooper said rescue squads will be converting to submitting paperwork online in the next few months.

Brady believes that paid service should be up to 95 percent of calls billed.

If rescue squads are only turning in 12 percent of their bills, "then how can we sit here and make a recommendation on anything else?" Brady asked.

She likened countywide insurance billing to a law that the supervisors swore to uphold when they took office. She suggested that the supervisors may need to sit down and come up with a figure about what level of billing would prove satisfactory for Carroll citizens.

As for the missions and goals, Brady believed this was a good start.

Sutphin agreed that the proposal was a stepping stone in a direction the county needs to go.

ESB members discussed how the survey should be done anonymously, maybe in 20 questions, to find out what the volunteers are thinking.

"That way if they're afraid of retaliation, there's no way to trace back..." Jackson noted.

Before the meeting ended, Assistant County Administrator Ronald Newman made a motion to present the goals and objectives to the board of supervisors.

The ESB approved them unanimously after a second by Cochran.