Originally created 11/05/04

Aiken toils to replace aging ambulance fleet



AIKEN - Aiken County's aging ambulance fleet soon will be getting reinforcements - four new ambulances in the next four months - but with ongoing money and staffing problems, the department won't be keeping pace with the county's growth-fueled emergency demands, officials say.

The four new ambulances, which the county council paid for out of the general fund, will only replace older ambulances. Some of the older rigs have racked up more than 200,000 miles and are in need of repairs that will cost more than the rigs are worth on the market.

"We're not expanding our services. We're keeping what we have running," County Administrator Clay Killian said.

Proctor Bush, a member of the county Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee, has been pushing for more ambulances and EMS workers for years and says the problem won't be solved until the county makes it a priority.

"The ambulances are held together with duct tape," Mr. Bush said. "We're losing personnel. We're slowly bleeding to death."

About eight ambulances are up and running on an average day in Aiken County, a jurisdiction that covers about 1,073 square miles, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

In 2001, the county council promised to start buying two ambulances a year in order to gradually replace the aging fleet, but budget problems since then have prevented that, County Administrator Clay Killian said.

"It wasn't a lack of desire. It was a lack of money," Mr. Killian said.

Even if the county got several new ambulances added to its fleet, it would still be short of trained emergency medical technicians, county EMS Director Phil Clarke said. Many workers are leaving to go to private companies, nursing businesses and careers that pay more, he said.

"If we don't have the people, it doesn't matter how new the trucks are," Assistant EMS Shift Manager Lisa Hintz said recently as she looked inside a broken down ambulance she guessed had logged close to 250,000 miles.

A steady rise in calls has added to the stress workers feel on the job, Mr. Clarke said. For the past four years, Aiken County's population has gone up about 1,000 residents a year. So far this year, the department has answered more than 12,000 calls. By the end of the year it expects to have answered more than 14,000 calls.

County officials got a boost this week when voters approved the renewal of the local one-cent sales tax. The $114 million package calls for two new EMS substations, one in the northeast part of the county and one in the south side of Aiken. However, the sales tax cannot be used to pay any new employees to keep up with the county's growth.

Reach Phil Watson at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or phil.watson@augustachronicle.com.

Aiken County's Emergency Medical Service and aging ambulance fleet isn't keeping pace with growth. In each of the past four years, the county's population has increased by 1,000 people, and by year's end, the county expects to log more than 14,000 emergency medical calls.