Surry agrees to pay Isle of Wight $1,000 per EMS call

Published 5:15 pm Friday, December 2, 2022

From this month forward, Surry County will pay Isle of Wight County $1,000 every time Surry asks Isle of Wight to send one of its ambulances across the county line.

Isle of Wight Emergency Services Chief Pat Humphries had proposed the per-call fee in June, contending the emergency medical services mutual aid agreement between the two counties that’s been in place for years has historically been far from mutual. Surry County supervisors, on Dec. 1, voted unanimously to agree to Humphries’ terms.

Humphries, in June, estimated that Isle of Wight had requested an ambulance from Surry “maybe one time” in the two years he’s been Isle of Wight’s emergency services chief. His counterpart in Surry, Chief Ray Phelps, told Surry supervisors on Dec. 1 that as of that date, Isle of Wight had answered 179 EMS calls in Surry over the past 30 months.

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Surry, which had just over 6,500 residents in 2021 compared to Isle of Wight’s estimated 39,000, has only two paid emergency medical technicians on call each day, and depends on volunteers and mutual aid agreements to field 911 calls when those two are in transit to a hospital.

“It happens often, way too often,” Phelps said, noting that within the past two weeks, Surry had to call on neighboring Prince George, Isle of Wight, Sussex and Southampton counties to respond to a stroke victim but was unable to get any available units. The delay in response time due to having to rely on outside agencies is “easily 30 to 45 minutes.”

“We have had deaths occur because of that delay,” Phelps said.

Isle of Wight’s emergency services plan, by comparison, calls for the county to have five ambulances staffed. But “that’s based on covering their citizens, not also covering Surry County,” Phelps said.

The $1,000-per-call fee would also be reciprocal if Isle of Wight needed a Surry ambulance to cross the county line. But the fee is essentially a stop-gap measure, intended to keep aid flowing to Surry while the county pursues initiatives for recruiting additional in-house EMTs. Phelps said the county is looking into hosting its own EMT training class at its emergency operations center on Route 10 in the near future.

“We have instructors already lined up,” Phelps said.

Phelps sees Surry’s youth as integral to solving the county’s EMT staffing deficiencies, noting he’d sat on a committee with Surry County Public Schools and Social Services personnel a few years ago to look into partnering with a college to train Surry County High School students as EMTs. The Virginia Department of Health lists 16 as the minimum age students can begin the EMT basic certification course.

At the time the cost was around $3,000 per student, and the students would have had to travel outside of the county two nights a week, plus Saturdays.

“We felt that we could do the training for a third of that … and not have to have that student actually leave the county to go to school, which I think sits better with the parents,” Phelps said.

The issue, however, is that ambulances would still need what’s known as an attendant-in-charge. According to Phelps, one of the criteria for an EMT to be qualified to drive an ambulance is having at least a three-year clean driving record.

Still, teenagers certified at the EMT-basic level could be a “big part of the program,” Phelps said. “They can help us fill a lot of things like ball games for the high school.”

It would “give the youth a sense of community and putting back into the community, and that’s where it needs to start; it needs to start at the young age,” Phelps said.