Bertie EMS sirens to remain

Published 8:39 am Tuesday, September 30, 2014

PERRYTOWN – Despite complaints from Windsor residents, Bertie County Emergency Service vehicles will still sound their sirens and flash their warning lights in the early morning hours when these vehicles are responding to calls.

Citing state statutes that require the wailing whenever emergency vehicles are on a call the county’s Board of Commissioners heard discussion, and then voted to abide by the statutory law.

“We run with lights and sirens for every single call, and that is prescribed by the general statutes,” said Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer as discussion began on the issue. “There have been a few citizens who have been impacted very directly in downtown Windsor.”

Sauer said Windsor is the busiest of the county’s EMS locales, running about 1,500 calls since the first of the year – ten times that of the Windsor Fire Department.

Windsor mayor Jim Hoggard had sent a letter to the Commissioners outlining the citizen complaints and requesting the board consider authorizing the EMS vehicles to make the running of sirens discretionary based on the premise of the call.

Hoggard further noted in his letter that there is no state statue that requires the use of sirens, so he and his town board wanted the Commissioners to set a policy county-wide: sirens or no sirens on every single EMS call.

“Our EMS staff, our county attorney and his partner have spent a considerable amount of time reviewing the statutes, conferring with our liability carrier (the Association of County Commissioners), and we’d like to talk to you about the request that’s being made by the town.”

Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Huddleston said it was a statutory issue and a right-of-issue.  He noted that G.S. 20-125 (b) states emergency vehicles used for answering calls are equipped with visual and auditory equipment and are required to use them at all times, particularly when they are within 1,000 feet of an intersection.

“If a vehicle like that is going to have the right-of-way, when its coming up to a stop sign, solid red light, or blinking red light, then according to the statute it’s going to have to have lights and siren audible,” said Huddleston. “So the concern is that whenever one of those vehicles rolls, if it’s going to roll under emergency purposes, then it has to have those lights and sirens in order to have the right-of-way.”

Huddleston gave examples of situations: summer dusk daylight hours or children in the streets, where if lights only are running there could be a serious liability problem.

On the issue of discretion, Huddleston said that opened a question of driver error; noting that based on the location of the siren switch on the vehicle’s panel, it may break a driver’s concentration to reach for the on-switch when approaching an intersection.

“If you leave it up to the discretion of the driver you do have the possibility of driver error and the possibility of liability,” Huddleston said. “It’s my understanding that if there’s an accident, the first question asked is ‘Did you have your lights and siren on’?”

“You’re opening a can of worms if you crack that door of discretion,” he warned. “And there’s no telling what’s going to come through it.”

Chairman J. Wallace Perry said add what he called ‘common sense to the equation.’

“I’ve had them wake me up in the middle of the night,” Perry cited. “I know it bothers people.”

Sauer said there’s an EMS training manual that’s required of emergency personnel and that it makes a point that sirens are required by DMV law at every intersection.

“An intersection is not just a crossroads but it includes every driveway, farm road, alleyway that might come into the path of the highway,” Sauer said. “It’s a difficult and troublesome issue, but we’d be looking at a significant liability (issue) if we’re not operating those lights and sirens when we’re in an emergency response.”

Vice-chairman Charles Smith said any decision the Commissioners made had to consider the whole county and not just the town of Windsor.

“It’s not like the emergency vehicles are running 24 hours a day, back and forth blaring sirens, it’s just at certain times” Smith said. “For the sake of everyone I think everyone should use common sense that accidents can happen.”

Commissioner John Trent said the county must abide by the state statutes.

Commissioner Ronald D. “Ron” Wesson said there may be an answer on the horizon in the forthcoming Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) system, approved in the coming year’s budget. EMD will go into effect when the current 911 system is swapped out.

“Does that software allow us to know the extent of the emergency prior to the time the vehicle leaves the bay,” Wesson asked. “Notification before the driver leaves if it is indeed a life-threatening event.  Those incidents where it’s not a life-threatening event, we might be able to use some discretion.”

“But until that happens it seems to me very clear that one incident where this county is sued with some kid driving late at night and runs into something, even if it’s not our fault, could bankrupt this county,” he warned. “If the statute says this is what we have to do, until we find some other way to do it, we have to follow the statute.”

Commissioner Trent then made a motion that the county continue to abide by the state statutes on EMS vehicles with sirens and lights, and the motion was seconded by Smith.

The motion carried unanimously, 4-0, because Commissioner Rick Harrell was absent from the meeting.