By Caitlin Doermer

The Buena Vista Rescue Squad is at odds with the city’s Volunteer Fire Department over whose ambulance can take people to the hospital.

Historically, the rescue squad has been the only agency allowed to respond to medical emergencies that involved an ambulance trip. But when volunteer rescue workers weren’t available, patients had to wait for a backup crew from Lexington, Fairfield or Glasgow. Buena Vista Fire Chief Tommy Keiser says patients have been known to wait up to 30 minutes for a backup ambulance.

In April 2010, City Council passed a resolution allowing the fire department to add an Emergency Medical Services unit, known as “first response.” The designation allows the fire department to respond to medical calls.

In September, the fire department bought its own ambulance. But citing the 2010 resolution, the city still won’t allow firefighters to transport patients to Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital.

BV Rescue Squad currently is the only transport agency in the city. Photo by Caitlin Doermer

The 2010 resolution says the Buena Vista Rescue Squad will remain the only transport agency in the city, unless the squad becomes “incapable of transporting patients.”

Keiser says the fire department bought its ambulance after he noticed the number of calls the rescue squad couldn’t respond to. He takes issue with city residents continuing to need help from Lexington in an emergency.

“It takes [Lexington agencies] anywhere from eight to 10 minutes to get over there,” he said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”

But when word about the fire department buying its own ambulance spread, the rescue squad wasn’t happy.

Keiser, who was both a firefighter and a rescue squad member, said there has always been tension between the two. But lately the bad blood has gotten worse.

The rescue squad isn’t talking. Squad members directed questions to squad President Ronnie Slough, who said he had no comment on the issue.

Keiser said the controversy drove him to quit the squad.

Council Member Lewis Plogger, a rescue squad volunteer, picked sides during a heated council meeting discussion on Sept. 6. He said the fire department wants to take over rescue squad territory so the department can be paid for ambulance calls.

Aside from emergency calls in Buena Vista, Rockbridge County has a $72,400 annual contract for the city’s rescue squad to answer calls in areas of the county around Buena Vista. On Monday, Oct. 22, Slough won approval from the county Board of Supervisors for a change in the contract in the county’s favor. Now, payment of services by health insurance companies for county calls will be returned to the county, effectively reducing that contract cost by as much as $30,000, but keeping the relationship with the rescue squad. Slough declined to comment on the controversy with Keiser, who did not attend the meeting. “The county had already made up its mind [to continue its relationship with the rescue squad] because we’d been talking to them,” he said.

Regarding Buena Vista calls, Keiser said that if the city would let the fire department transport, the department wouldn’t bill for any of its calls.

“The fire department is not trying to take any money away from the rescue squad,” he said. “We believe that it would be better for a citizen of Buena Vista to be transported by a Buena Vista agency rather than a Lexington agency. For some reason, city council doesn’t think so.”

City council says it is the only body allowed to determine whether the rescue squad is “incapable” of answering calls. Council decided to let the city’s public safety committee explore the issue before readdressing it. City Attorney Brian Kearney is on vacation this week and was not available to comment on what the resolution means by “incapable.”

When asked why the fire department is being met with such resistance, City Manager Jay Scudder said, “I guess I don’t have an answer for that.”

Council’s public safety liaisons, Plogger and Melvin Henson, were instructed to hold a meeting with two representatives each from the fire department and the rescue squad. But Keiser said the meeting never happened.

Plogger said he was not in a position to discuss the issue. He said he is waiting on Rockbridge County to make a decision regarding money allocation to emergency services providers. Henson said he was too busy to talk to the Rockbridge Report this week.

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