By Jen Bookhout and Travis Mounts
Concerns about the Emergency Medical Service in Sumner County were raised in a recent county commission meeting. Changes to the EMS system in the county have been discussed periodically in the last few years.
“This is the end of my first term,” District 1 Commissioner Steve Warner said, “and the EMS subsidy has been a topic of discussion ever since I’ve been here.”
NEXT WEEK: Learn how possible changes could impact ambulance service in Conway Springs and Argonia, and learn more about the EMS services that cover Sumner County. Pick up the March 20 print edition of the Star-Argosy.
With cities and townships contracting EMS services with one another more often, the idea of creating a countywide EMS program was proposed at a recent meeting. The informal proposal came from the Wellington Fire Department.
“There are difficulties out there with volunteers and budgeting,” Wellington Fire Chief Tim Hay said. “That’s kind of why we made the proposal.”
Most fire departments and EMS services in Sumner County are staffed by volunteers. However, this creates complications when those volunteers work out of town during the week. To staff an EMS station full-time, there must be at least two employees on call at all times; volunteer availability makes this difficult for many smaller towns.
In Argonia, difficulty in finding enough volunteers to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, led the local EMS to turn its license back in to the state. Norwich EMS now provides service to Argonia. When there are enough volunteers available, an ambulance based in Argonia will respond. When the local ambulance is not staffed, a unit comes from Norwich.
Conway Springs operates its own EMS service, and staffing the daytime shifts is an ongoing issue. When the city’s previous police chief April Addis was let go as chief, she was offered a full-time EMS position. The city had not funded the position, and there were unanswered questions as to the duties of the position. She resigned before taking on the new position, but the situation highlighted the need for additional volunteers.
Subsidies play a role in funding EMS stations across the state. Those subsidies are funded in various ways across the state, depending on what each county has determined to be the best solution for its area. Sumner County has a half-cent sales tax that helps fund EMS services. The county provides grants for local EMS departments.
“The main thing is trying to find equity in the subsidy,” Warner said.
One suggestion offered is the creation of a countywide EMS system with satellite stations across the county. However, the questions of who would fund it, how it would be staffed and where the satellite stations would be placed still remain.
Another option the county is exploring is to stop funding EMS with the countywide tax and instead create local EMS districts along current service area boundaries, but with taxing powers.
“We’re still trying to figure out if it’s feasible or even if it’s legal,” District 2 Commissioner Jim Newell said. “We’re looking to see if it’s possible that we can make EMS districts.”
There are state qualifications the EMS stations must meet, in addition to funding and staffing requirements, which make the idea an intricate topic of discussion.
In general, the theme behind the district proposal is the idea of removing the county from the business of funding EMS, Warner said. Concerns remain about whether some areas are populated enough to handle the demands of staffing, funding and operating an EMS district or satellite station.
There is no state law that requires any governmental body to provide EMS services, according to Steve Sutton, executive director of the Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services. Sutton was part of a 2011 meeting in Wellington that began looking at EMS service in the county after Argonia’s EMS unit folded into Norwich EMS. He said most counties are serviced by individual ambulance services. Sedgwick County has a countywide EMS service, but it is the exception rather than the rule.
“Those who are doing countywide service are doing so because it’s hard to maintain volunteers,” he said. Larger counties like Sedgwick and Shawnee, where Topeka is located, have a large metropolitan population base. That helps lower the average cost per taxpayer while providing for a professional, paid staff.
Overall, the commissioners are unified in wanting to provide everyone with adequate EMS, Warner said. Finding an appropriate funding solution that satisfies the county and its citizens may continue to be a struggle in the coming discussions.