Response times, communication spurs Riverside EMS switch

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RIVERSIDE — Long response times and poor communication were the main issues that led to the township’s decision to drop the Delran Emergency Squad as its primary provider of emergency medical services, township officials said during a recent town hall meeting.

The township committee voted to terminate its agreement with the Delran Emergency Squad on Sept. 5 and voted to enter into an agreement with the Palmyra Ambulance Association on Sept. 16.

During the Oct. 7 town hall, officials cited concerns over a lack of prompt response times to calls where individuals were seriously injured as to why the township switched EMS providers.

Riverside Police Chief William Eliason said the response time to one incident in particular when a man fell off a motorcycle and severely injured his head, was the most troubling.

“We had a gentleman on the ground for 20 to 30 minutes waiting to go to the hospital. Officers knew he was in critical condition just by his appearance on location. Imagine if that was one of your family members waiting on the ground?” Eliason asked at the meeting.

Eliason cited eight other incidents in the township this year where it took Delran EMS over 20 minutes to respond.

The average response time from a 911 call to when the first ambulance arrives on the scene is around seven minutes, according to a 2017 study in JAMA Surgery medical journal.

Mayor Lorraine Hatcher said that the decision was not an indictment of the skill and professionalism of the Delran Emergency Squad EMTs.

“The decision was not made in any way against the EMTs,” Hatcher said. “You’re all very well-trained, dedicated EMTs … That has nothing to do with the decision this township committee had to make.”

A lack of communication from the Delran EMS was another problem, Eliason said.

According to the police chief, the emergency squad never communicated to the township that it resumed operations in January.

The chief, who also acts as the head of emergency services in the township, also said the emergency squad failed to notify the township when it was unable to provide emergency services for a certain amount of time, otherwise known as on all-call status, or provide the township with monthly reports of its services provided.

“My most important job is to make sure we, as a police department, provide the best and most efficient EMS and police services we can. If I see there is an issue and do nothing to address that, it is considered a failure for me,” Eliason said.

Chuck McSweeney, the principal of EMS Consulting Services and current head of Delran EMS, acknowledged that it took the organization a few months after it resumed operations in January to get back up to standard.

But, McSweeney said, the squad has averaged a response time of 5 minutes 38 seconds for the month of September and missed only three out of 17 calls.

The combined paid and volunteer emergency squad had its license suspended for the last six months of 2018 by the New Jersey Department of Health due to multiple violations, including operating vehicles with uncertified staff, altering patient care reports and hindering an audit investigation.

An investigation revealed that the squad’s then-chief Donald Horner had altered reports on 27 different occasions when he served as a crew member to conceal the fact that he was an uncertified EMT, which would have disallowed the squad from billing for those services.

Horner was sentenced to 30 days in jail in June.

The township contracted with the Palmyra Ambulance Association for temporary coverage last year when Delran Emergency Squad’s license was suspended.

The emergency squad resumed operations in January under a corrective action plan established by the state Department of Health, allowing the squad to keep its license as a basic life support agency after it first operated for one year under the basic life support agency license held by EMS Consulting Services, a police and fire department consulting firm based in Hammonton.

McSweeney and EMS Consulting Services have direct, day-to-day operational control over the squad under the agreement.

McSweeney said that on some of the calls cited by Elliason, where the response time was over 20 minutes, Delran Emergency Squad ambulances were already out on other calls and relied on its mutual aid partners. McSweeney said that practice has been existence for several years.

“It wasn’t like we were sitting in our building doing nothing,” McSweeney said.

McSweeney added that while he was aware of some of the township’s complaints, he was not aware of the township’s plans to terminate its agreement with the Delran Emergency Squad until those plans had already been put in motion.

He said that they did have two meetings with township officials following the notice to try and address the concerns.

“The elected officials need to ensure the public has access to services they need, and we acknowledge and respect that decision,” McSweeney said. “We’ll continue to be mutual aid when Palmyra is not available.”

A new deal with Palmyra

Under the new agreement, the Palmyra Ambulance Association will provide staffing for one primary Basic Life Support licensed units to service Riverside for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, including all holidays.

Palmyra Ambulance Association Chief Dan Norman said that the ambulance will be operated out of the Riverside Fire Department on West Scott Street during peak hours.

Norman said the Palmyra Ambulance Association has eight full-time employees, 15 to 17 part-time EMTs and currently 10 volunteers still in their system that run calls, including one volunteer that does 24 hours on an ambulance every week. Norman said the company is also hiring for more EMTs.

The Palmyra Ambulance Association serves the Palmyra, Cinnaminson and Riverton.

Norman said the company will only bill township residents’ insurance companies for services provided. Those from outside the township who receive services from the Palmyra Ambulance Association in Riverside could receive a bill, Norman said.

The agreement also requires the Palmyra Ambulance Association to provide the township with monthly reports, which will include the documentation of any response time that exceeds 8 minutes and 59 seconds.

The loss of the Riverside contract shouldn’t have too much of an impact on the rebounding Delran Emergency Squad, McSweeney said, noting that calls in Riverside contributed to only 16% of the squad’s business.

“We will be able to continue to operate in the black,” McSweeney said.

Under the squad’s correction plan, the goal is for the squad to resume full control of its day-to-day operations in January 2020. McSweeney added the squad is also working to hiring full-time staff again. It currently has 28 part-time employees and about eight volunteers.

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