What happened to a group of cheerleaders speeding along Interstate 20 on Sunday is what emergency responders fear most - a van flipped over with a dozen serious injuries in Taliaferro County, one of the pockets in the state with no ambulance service nearby.
Those who responded to the wreck defended their care of the students Wednesday at a meeting of emergency services providers, while others said the wreck should remind the state that better coordination and more services are needed.
Speaking to the East Central Georgia EMS Council, Wilkes County EMS director Blake Thompson praised what a hastily assembled crew did for the State University of West Georgia cheerleaders and their coach. Two died in the wreck, three remain in critical condition and eight others were hospitalized. But it was the best that could be done, Mr. Thompson said.
"There wasn't any delay" in getting them to the hospital, Mr. Thompson said.
The first Wilkes County ambulance was on the scene 23 minutes after the call despite being 23 miles away when the call came at 7:34 a.m., he said. First responders from nearby counties were already on the scene and the Wilkes County ambulances were joined by fire and rescue units from Washington and Siloam, Mr. Thompson said.
At the scene, Mr. Thompson called for helicopters to transport four critically injured patients and got Med-Serv, a private service from Madison, and Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta. But he was turned down by two private services in Atlanta and was switched around repeatedly by military sources, Mr. Thompson said.
Those at the scene were later offended by suggestions from doctors at Medical College of Georgia that it took too long for victims to reach the Regional Trauma Center there, Mr. Thompson said. But MCG's chief of trauma, Michael Hawkins, told Mr. Thompson that the comments were meant to be constructive.
"There's room for improvement from our side, from the road side," Dr. Hawkins said. "We need to use this opportunity to learn."
Dr. Hawkins later suggested that establishing a system where a single person is coordinating and overseeing a multiple-victim accident with many agencies responding could help smooth the process. The state has recently completed a plan for coordinating trauma services but it will not address the air ambulance issue and is just now in the process of being implemented, said state EMS director Sam Cunningham.
If nothing else, the wreck should remind people of the terrible price Georgia pays from accidents, estimated at more than $4 billion a year, Mr. Cunningham said.
"EMS is often overlooked in this state, (but) it's the one program that has the potential to affect the lives of every citizen in this state," Mr. Cunningham said.
No one can afford any more to overlook the lack of ambulances in small counties as they drive past them down the road, said Robert Suter, former director of emergency services for Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
"There are holes in the safety net and we have to do what we can to patch those up," Dr. Suter said.