By Mickey Gorman
The Commonwealth of Virginia issued new regulations for emergency medical services last October. Five months later, these regulations are finally taking effect.
Last week the Lexington Fire Department passed a state inspection and had its license renewed, said Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson.
Passing the state’s biennial inspection ensures that the Lexington Fire Department meets the new standards. Some of the new regulations include more thorough background checks for firefighters, shorter time windows to file medical reports, and a ban of tobacco products inside fire department property.
“It’s like a lot of things,” Dickerson said. “[We are] learning to adapt to it – to adjust to it.” He says most of the changes are administrative and will not drastically affect his department’s operation.
Yet failing to comply with the new regulations would be costly. Fire departments across the state will be charged a $1,000 fine per offense, per day.
Robert Foresman, the Emergency Coordinator for Rockbridge County, said that when the state finds an agency that is failing to meet the new standard, “the clock starts ticking.”
The most significant and expensive change for the Commonwealth, however, will not be implemented until July. Current and future employees will have to undergo a much more thorough background check, including a fingerprint scan.
The new regulations also require that department staff members partner with local government officials to come up with a formalized EMS response plan.
Lexington Fire Department staff answer calls for an area that spans 55 square miles. In 2012, the average response time was seven minutes and 16 seconds, with the longest response time clocking in at 12 minutes. Dickerson recently met with Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad to come up with a 14-minute maximum response time.
Regarding drug and substance abuse, the new EMS regulations include a ban on the use of tobacco inside agency property. This includes fire trucks, ambulances, as well as firehouses.
“We had always treated that as an existing policy,” Dickerson said. “I guess it was just the way we interpreted it.”
While Dickerson said Lexington Fire Department staff members have already successfully met the new standards, Foresman is worried that volunteer-operated agencies in the county will have a harder time implementing these regulations.
“The biggest impact [is that] it’s going to require more time, and that is something that volunteers don’t have,” Foresman said.
Deeper background checks and written plans with local governments will mean more paperwork for EMS agencies across Virginia. Volunteers will be expected to fill a larger role in these administrative tasks.
“I’m paid to sit here and do [paperwork],” said Trent Roberts, a Lieutenant with the Lexington Fire Department. “A volunteer isn’t paid to sit there and do that.”
Foresman worries that the added responsibilities will not only deter volunteers from joining fire departments, but also lead existing volunteers to quit.
“Your only other option if you start losing large numbers of volunteers is to bring in career staff,” Foresman said. “And if you do that, it costs a significant amount of money, and that is something that we don’t have right now.”
At a Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this month, Foresman urged the county to oversee changes as soon as possible.