State of Emergency!

Published 2:58 pm Monday, December 9, 2013

WINDSOR – Bertie County officials declared a State of Emergency here Monday morning after learning  its emergency medical provider has opted to abruptly end service to the county only two months in to a five-year agreement.

At an emergency meeting of the Bertie Board of Commissioners, the county officially learned the news  they feared the most – First Med will cease operations effective Wednesday. The two parties entered an EMS agreement, the first of its kind in the state between public and private entities, effective Oct. 1.

“What we need the citizens of Bertie County to understand is that although we have lost First Med, we will not lose emergency medical service. Our citizens will not be left without emergency services,” stated Wallace Perry, Chairman of the County Commissioners.

Perry added that he was “shocked” upon learning the news that First Med was experiencing financial trouble, so much to the point that it led to the Wilmington-based company closing operations in several states.

“We thought everything was working smoothly (with First Med). They were doing a fine job and we were pleased with the level of service they were providing,” Perry noted.

Apparently, things were not as good as they appeared.

By declaring a State of Emergency, Bertie County invokes several state statutes that deal with “immediate unforeseen circumstances” – in this case the unwarranted termination by First Med of its contract with the county.

In signing the order, Perry delegates all authority to Mitch Cooper, the county’s Emergency Management Director, to coordinate with the state to secure resources and assets, and meet with private medical transport service providers and EMS operations in nearby counties through mutual aid agreements in an effort to maintain continuous coverage of 911 emergency medical calls within the county.

The State of Emergency also permits Perry to direct and authorize the county attorney to seek immediate injunctive relief and temporary restraining orders to prevent the disruption of services. Additionally it authorizes the county attorney to take appropriate measures to address any breach of contract.

“In a nutshell, what this does is empowers Mitch to pull up any and all state assets – manpower, equipment…whatever we might need – beginning immediately,” said Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer. “That could include the immediate transfer of equipment from other agencies.”

Sauer said among the first steps is to reach out to the existing First Med employees working in Bertie County. Numbers provided to this newspaper showed that First Med employed 24 full-time and 30 part-time workers to operate Bertie EMS, which included four ambulances and one, quick-response unit on duty 24/7.

“Starting today, we’ll go to them to see if they are interested in working for the county; we’ll make them an offer,” he stated. “You have to realize they were caught off guard by all of this as well. We want to make them whole again as quickly as possible; make our EMS system whole again as quickly as possible.”

Part of the State of Emergency authorizes Sauer to extend temporary offers of employment to existing EMS personnel. He is also empowered to take any appropriate administrative and budgetary measures to facilitate continued EMS operations.

When asked about the possibility of using First Med’s equipment already stationed in the county, Sauer said, “We could look at seizing control (of the equipment), but we also have other options…contingency plans of offers of equipment from other counties and private (medical transport) companies.”

Perry stated the county was already receiving offers, without naming of where those offers were coming.

Sauer noted that the State of Emergency does afford county leaders some time to study what long-term options are available. That document does not expire until the situation is rectified and can only be ordered to expire by Perry.

“We need to find a replacement provider; that could be another EMS company coming in to assume management and oversight of what was First Med’s operation or the county could consider going into the emergency medical service business ourselves,” he explained. “There may be other options in-between, but whatever direction we take I know our board of commissioners is committed to continue to provide paramedic-level services to our citizens.”

Sauer was asked about the research conducted by county staff on First Med prior to the offering of a service contract several months ago.

“There was a thorough review of the service records and financial statements of First Med prior to offering the contract,” he stated.

Perry said he didn’t think First Med’s financial woes were prompted by adding Bertie County to their business offerings.

“The sense we’re picking up is there have been significant management changes at CEO level at First Med; that most likely resulted in these recent changes,” Sauer said. “We have heard that First Med may file Chapter 7 (bankruptcy) and we want to get out in front of that action.”

The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald was the first regional newspaper to break the news, online and on our Facebook page, about First Med’s troubles.

Over the weekend, the News-Herald learned that First Med, which provides emergency and non-emergency medical transportation services, had abruptly closed locations in several states and laid off thousands of employees.

According to WVEC 13 News, who contacted the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald on Sunday, First Med is the parent company of two businesses – Eastern Shore Ambulance of Portsmouth, VA and Mar Mac Ambulance Service of Hampton, VA –that closed this past weekend.

First Med informed those employees on Friday and Saturday that they no longer had a job.

News reports online indicate that First Med subsidiaries in other states shut down at the same time, to include LIFE Ambulance and MedCorp EMS, both in Ohio. MedCorp, a Toledo-based ambulance service, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. The same year it was acquired by First Med EMS.

First Med moved its base of operations to Wilmington in January of 2012. At that time it boasted of 2,400 employees doing business in eight states.

(Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald Staff Writer Gene Motley contributed to this story.)

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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