By David Howell
The first emergency call comes in at 1:10 p.m. Monday afternoon – fireman from Tillatoba and Oakland are dispatched to an I-55 accident after an 18-wheeler strikes a tree. The Yalobusha General Hospital ambulance stationed in Coffeeville is dispatched to the scene.
Just over five minutes later, around 1:17 p.m. a second medical emergency blares over the radio. This time, an ambulance is dispatched to Eckford Street in Water Valley.
Within minutes two ambulances are responding to two unrelated calls at opposite ends of the county.
Although not an everyday occurrence, a similar situation in October delayed response time to a two-vehicle accident at the intersection of County Road 436 and 90, according to Yalobusha General Hospital Administrator Terry Varner.
This October incident became public after Butler McLeod approached supervisors in a November 3 meeting with questions about the delay. He is the husband of Daliah McLeod, the injured driver in the October crash.
McLeod told supervisors his wife sustained an injured knee and broken leg and it took an hour for an ambulance to respond.
In that particular situation, Varner said that ambulances operating in Lafayette County were also all out on calls and a Panola ambulance was dispatched, accounting for the delay.
The county’s ambulances average 130 calls per month, a number that equates to an average of four calls per day. Of the 130 monthly calls, an average of 40 of the calls do not result in a transport, according to Varner.
“We either treat them at the scene or they refuse transport,” the hospital administrator explains.
“We are operating at a premium,” Varner continues, referring to the two ambulances working around the clock to serve a county with just over 13,000 residents.
Varner also explains the price tag to operate two ambulances in Yalobusha is an astounding $750,000 annually. Of that amount, supervisors allocate around $190,000 to offset the expense. The actual reimbursement paid by patients transported is approximately $450,000. This means the hospital loses $110,000 each year, while operating two ambulances in the county.
“We are operating (two ambulances) at a substantial loss,” Varner explained. “We have to live within our budget.”
While Varner believes a third ambulance cannot be justified based on the population of the county or the finances, he did point out concerns with the current system of dispatching ambulances in the county.
If a caller dials 911, the call goes directly to the county’s E-911 call center, located at the Water Valley Police Department. If the dispatcher on duty determines the caller has a medical emergency, the call is then rolled over to the hospital, according to Varner.
“If the call occurs between 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., it goes to the front switchboard,” Varner explains. Whoever answers the switchboard will then hit the tone, notifying ambulance crews at Water Valley and Coffeeville of the call.
If the medical call comes after 8 p.m. and before 7:30 a.m., it goes directly to the nurse’s station at the hospital, according to Varner.
“The nurse’s primary duty is patient care,” Varner said, which could create a short delay if the nurse is taking care of a patient.
“The nurse’s primary duty is patient care,” Varner added.
The actual tone system to alert the ambulance crews, who operate in pairs with a highly-trained paramedic and ambulance driver, was implemented after a Water Valley physician expressed concern with the process two years earlier. His concerns led to a meeting that included officials from the city, county, and hospital to examine options.
Early ideas generated from this series of meetings included allowing dispatchers at the Water Valley Police Department to dispatch medical crews directly.
Herald sources indicated that liability concerns squelched this idea, and instead the outcome came in the form of adding a radio frequency tone-out system activated from the hospital.
Varner estimated that he could outfit a dispatch system, at the hospital, for an additional $50,000 annually. The problem, according to Varner, is the move would actually duplicate dispatching services already operational in the county. A trained dispatcher handles at the Water Valley Police Department 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fielding police, fire and medical calls from all over the county.
In addition to the dispatcher on duty at the Water Valley Police Department, another dispatcher is also on duty at all hours at the sheriff’s department.
“We don’t have a computer screen to show the location of the caller,” Varner said about the medical calls that are rolled over to the hospital. With a panicked patient or family member on the phone, it can often be difficult for to get valuable information to get an ambulance rolling.
“This whole scenario isn’t about who wins or looks good,” Varner told the Herald. “This is about the patient on the side of the road.”
The kicker is, according to Varner, the average number of daily emergency medical calls is four.
“We need to figure out a way to dispatch 911 services for medical emergencies that doesn’t duplicate services (already in place) and at the same time will be easy on the limited amount of funds available,” Varner concluded.