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Public Health Concerns Leads To Closure Of Longstanding Ambulance Service

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The closure of Quinwood Emergency Ambulance Services has ignited a firestorm of social media controversy. After 40 years of service to the Greenbrier Valley, and amidst a sea of backlash and frustration, QEAS closed their doors for the last time on the morning of Monday, October 5.

The closure is the culmination of a situation which came to a head earlier in this past summer, although the situation began developing as far back as 2014. The WV Daily News first reported on this story, including a sampling of the statements posted on social media by representatives of QEAS, on Tuesday, October 6. However, as the story has developed, additional information has become available which provides a clearer understanding of the sequence of events.

On July 14, Greenbrier County Commissioner Tammy Tincher proposed a motion that would allow White Sulphur Springs Emergency Medical Services to provide service to the western-district of Greenbrier County. This is an area that, up until that day, had been serviced exclusively by Quinwood Emergency Ambulance Services.

“It’s not about pointing fingers or placing blame,” Tincher said at the time. “It’s just making sure we have the proper coverage. That’s our job as Commissioners.”

Tincher’s motion came as an attempt to address concerns that had been raised regarding QEAS’s response times, and insufficient number of operational ambulances. However, those concerns did not belong solely to Tincher, as Commissioner Lowell Rose expressed concerns of his own.

“We’ve been discussing this for at least the six-years I’ve been in office,” Rose said. “And we’re continually back at it again.”

Serena Davis, who functioned as both an EMT and administrator at QEAS, illustrated to the Committee the severe financial burden that the ambulance service was facing. She explained that the nonprofit QEAS required a net monthly-revenue of $90,000 in order to meet its financial obligations.

“In a good month, if we’re lucky we’ll do $88,000,” Davis said. “So far this year we’re averaging $74,000.”

The revenue reported by Davis suggested that QEAS was approximately $96,000 in the negative for the fiscal-year 2020 at the time of the July 14 meeting. This apparent lack of financial-solvency was the primary factor behind QEAS’s inability to make the necessary repairs to their trucks, and forced them to spend a large portion of 2020 with only a single operational ambulance.

Thomas Hayes of the White Sulphur Springs EMS, showed support for Davis, and QEAS, telling the Commissioners, “You can’t ask for better people.”

Hayes also empathized with QEAS’s financial struggles, explaining how costly it is to service a rural area where there may only be as few as one-call per day. The motion was passed unanimously, although Commissioner Michael McClung was reluctant in casting his yay-vote.

The ensuing weeks were chaotic, and resulted in what Greenbrier County Director of Emergency Management Mike Honaker referred to as “unintended consequences.”

“What the Commissioners brought to my attention, and what we’ve discussed with Quinwood, is when White Sulphur Springs became operational out there, the 911 center began to dual-tone the calls, which simply means both ambulances are notified at the same time of a rescue call,” Honaker said, in a July 28 meeting of the County Commissioners. “That little, unintended consequence was, for lack of a better term, ‘racing’ to calls.”

This “racing to calls,” as Honaker put it, served to compound the issue.

If QEAS traveled to a 911 call only to discover that White Sulphur Springs had arrived first, they would unnecessarily expend significant resources which were already in short supply, according to Honaker. On top of this, they would often find themselves out of position to respond to the next call. With hospital-transport times taking upwards of an hour as it was, this did nothing more but exacerbate the potential risk to public safety.

During that same meeting between County Commissioners on July 28, two options were presented: divide the western-end of Greenbrier County into separate service-zones, or discontinue utilizing QEAS for 911 calls altogether, and task White Sulphur Springs with servicing the entire district. The decision to continue using QEAS was made albeit with reservations.

“I do not feel comfortable removing Quinwood from service,” Tincher said. “But I am concerned.”

Once again, Rose shared the concern.

“I guess I’m taking the hard line because Quinwood has been a topic of discussion for several years, as far as their service, or lack thereof at times,” Rose said. “Seems like whenever we start to get after them, they pick it up. But then it goes right back to the way it was. Their response times and their service has not been adequate for the people on the west-end of the county.”

Rose felt that even with the addition of a second ambulatory service in the area, service for residents was still inadequate. However, White Sulphur Springs presence in the west-end did still provide an additional measure of coverage.

“At least now, if Quinwood is not available we have somebody in the area,” Rose said. “Somebody else to cover.”

It has been a little over nine weeks since the decision was made by Greenbrier County Commissioners to divide the western district into service-zones. In that time, White Sulphur Springs EMS established a permanent post in Rainelle, affording them the ability to provide adequate coverage for the entirety of the west-end, and QEAS saw their average 911 calls severely diminished. And on the morning of Saturday, October 3, QEAS announced that it had become financially-unfeasible for them to maintain operations.

The alleged complaints received by the Greenbrier Valley Commissioners remains a point of contention for QEAS. An excerpt from Quinwood’s social media closing announcement reads: “It has been stated that the County Commission has had complaints about QEA going back 6 years. I have submitted an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to the County Commission and to the 911 center. The answer I received was ‘there is no list.’ So there is no written documentation with specific dates or incidents.”

This statement is true; no list exists detailing the nature of the complaints made against Quinwood Emergency Ambulance Services, when they were made, or who made them.

According to the County Commissioners, the complaints they received were not submitted in writing. They were often made by phone, or through random public-encounters. And many times, the complaints were made on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. This type of information is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because it does not exist in the form of a document. It should also be noted that if such a list did exist, the Greenbrier County Commission would be prohibited by law from releasing it to QEAS. The same rights afforded to Quinwood under the Freedom of Information Act also apply to those who speak out regarding threats to public safety.

The following is an excerpt from a statement made by the County Commissioners on July 28, “In evaluating the level of ambulance services in this area, it became obvious that a number of calls for medical emergencies were met with lengthy delays in ambulance response times simply because there were not enough ambulances operating in the region. On many occasions, emergency medical service’s units located in adjacent regions were placed on standby to handle calls for medical emergencies in the Meadow River Valley, but there were a number of times this did not occur because of an oversight on the part of Quinwood Emergency Ambulance, Inc. This oversight caused unsatisfactory response times to several medical emergencies.”

The statement also specifically addresses the complaints made against QEAS.

“What we found was that the complaints we were receiving from our citizens were sustained, so we had to act. We could not simply continue to overlook the problem or delay a solution to the unsatisfactory ambulance services in the Meadow River Valley.”

Quinwood’s social Media post also stated, “On August 14th representatives from WVOEMS came to our office to do an inspection, and as it turns out, an investigation. When the meeting was over three things were accomplished: 1. Our trucks passed inspection without any problems, as they always have in the past. 2. We were finally able to find out what the complaints were about and they were not from 6 years ago. 3. It was determined that our crews ‘acted appropriately and used good judgment.’”

This statement is unsubstantiated. Mike Honaker told the WV Daily News that the inspection performed by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services was completely separate and independent of any evaluation or investigation conducted by his office. Furthermore, the inspection performed by the OEMS was apparently done at the request of QEAS’s Medical Director, Dr. Shawn Johnson.

“Dr. Johnson is a great guy, a great doctor,” Honaker said. “Requests for inspections like this are fairly common, and a good thing (for ambulance-service companies) to do.”

Honaker also stated that his request for a copy of the full report, or a summary thereof, was denied by the OEMS. Because of that, the OEMS’s inspection of QEAS’s facility, equipment, vehicles or staff did not factor into the Commissioner’s decision to bring White Sulphur Springs EMS into the district.

“These are good people, salt of the earth people,” Honaker said of the staff at QEAS. “Everybody likes them. They’re dedicated, and have served the community for many years. But it just couldn’t continue like it was. No one wanted them to have to close down. This wasn’t personal. But unfortunately, it was a public-health concern.”

Director Honaker, much like the County Commissioners, has been the recipient of a substantial amount of public backlash. However, Honaker also recognizes that this was an impossible situation for all parties involved.

“I’m not the one who makes the decision,” Honaker said. “The Commissioners asked me to investigate the situation, and make a recommendation based on what was found. But this was a lose-lose for them no matter how they handled it. For me, all of the misinformation out there is what’s disappointing.”

In particular, Honaker referenced the misconception that should residents of the west-end experience a medical emergency, they will be forced to wait for an ambulance to be dispatched from White Sulphur Springs to assist them. This is inaccurate, as White Sulphur Springs EMS now has an operational facility in Rainelle that is fully stocked with multiple ambulances, and staffed with EMTs. QEAS themselves verified White Sulphur Springs EMS’s competence through a July 28 social media post.

“We want our patients to know that we are very sorry we will not be able to take care of you in your time of need,” The post states. “But the crews from White Sulphur EMS have been appointed by the County Commission to cover the area and they will provide you with excellent care.”

Honaker is under the impression that QEAS is campaigning to have the decision to divide the district into service-zones re-evaluated, and overturned. However, Honaker is not aware of any plans that the County Commissioners have to revisit the situation in the foreseeable future.

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