Putting first responders first
Change is on the horizon in Berkeley County - and not just in the way the government is organized.
A pending referendum proposing the county change its form of government remains the biggest potential difference in how the county will operate in the future. But, as evidenced at a May 22 County Council meeting, in which county staffers presented council members with their proposed 2017-2018 budget, “business as usual” when it comes to certain services could be on the way out.
In an exhaustive, nearly two-hour long finance committee meeting prior to the regular assemblage of council, Berkeley County staffers proposed what would be the biggest change to how the county manages its most critical function - emergency services. Deputy County Supervisor for Finance Tim Callanan presented the pro-forma budget for council’s review, and with it, county staff’s vision of a reformed public safety department.
The crux of the proposed change is the introduction of new personnel and equipment for EMS (emergency medical services). Currently, Berkeley County operates nine ambulances from fixed locations throughout the expansive county. The department operates on three shifts with one of three county EMS battalion chiefs overseeing the entire system per shift. Callanan’s proposal involves adding a tenth fixed location EMS facility, two new roving ambulances, and six new battalion chiefs that will also operate as first responders.
The two new roving ambulances would operate at Berkeley County EMS-allocated peak times, on staggered 12-hour shifts, according to Callanan. The overall effect of the proposals would be an addition of three additional units in non-peak hours and five units during peak hours.
The new battalion chiefs would operate out of dedicated Quick Response Vehicles (QRVs), $130,000 SUVs equipped with everything an ambulance crew needs in caring for and transporting patients. Callanan argued that the growth in the system is needed not only with respect to EMS, but across the county’s public safety department.
“The way we are looking at EMS, it’s not just changing, it’s not just growing… we’re looking at an entire departmental reorganization,” began Callanan in addressing council during last week’s finance committee meeting. “We’re recommending adding 20 new public safety positions. Five of those are Sheriff’s detectives, one of them is a Sheriff’s deputy, four of those are 9-1-1 telecommunicators.”
“Also, we’re recommending adding six additional EMS battalion chiefs,” Callanan continued. “Which accounts for two per shift. They’ll be operating in a QRV, so they’ll be operating as a first responder on the road. The only difference is they won’t be able to operate as a transport,”
The benefit of the additional battalion chiefs, as opposed to one, Callanan explained, is they act as first responders. They are paramedics, so they can answer a call if the system is full and stabilize a patient until a transport can get there.
“It’s actually adding three units to the system,” added Callanan. “The difference is dramatic when you talk about units on the road able to respond.”
The need for change to the Berkeley County EMS system was not lost on members of Council. One councilman voiced his understanding of the way the county was currently operating, asking if moving some EMS units from one area to another would leave some areas unprotected.
“You are 100 percent correct and that’s exactly what these two peak ambulances hope to resolve,” responded Callanan. “We want to keep those ambulances in places like Cross or Jamestown. We can’t do that if all of a sudden we’ve run out of ambulances. We’ve got to move them closer to where they’re likely to get a call.”
After a spirited discussion and debate over the staff’s request and the current state of Berkeley County EMS, the body voted unanimously in favor of passing ordinance 17-17 on the budget, sending it to a third and final reading next month. Should the proposed budget be approved, changes would begin taking place at the beginning of the fiscal year in July.
MILLAGE RATE REMAINS LOWEST IN STATE
Despite being the fastest growing county in the state, the budget put forth by Berkeley County government staffers preserves the county’s effective millage rate at 29.5 mils. The county continues to charge the lowest millage rate not only in the region (Charleston County’s is 37.8 effective mils), but in the entire state.
County staffers recommended purchasing 43 new vehicles for public safety.
WATER RATES GOING UP
Berkeley County is considering a significant hike in the water rate for the coming fiscal years ahead. Though this year’s budget calls for only a three percent raise in water and sewer rates, county staff are recommending a 10 percent hike next year. “For every dollar that you collect in rates, we are paying out $1.70 in debt that’s related to water service,” Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan reported.