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EMS keeps pace with technological advances
EMS Director Wanda McDuffie watches Paramedic Greg Parks unload a stretcher from the agency’s new ambulance. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

 SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) never takes a safety shortcut.

The people it serves benefit from a staff that is long on experience and knowledgeable in the use of the most technologically advanced equipment in the medical field.

“One thing I will say about Effingham County — and I have been doing this for over forty years — is that (EMS Director) Wanda (McDuffie) and (the) Effingham County (Board of Commissioners) make sure all our equipment is top-notch,” Paramedic Greg Parks said. “She will ask us, ‘What do you think we need? What do you think can help our company? What do you think will make us better and safer?’”

EMS replaced one of its five ambulances with a new $160,000 model in January.

“This is like the Cadillac of ambulances,” Parks said. “We’ve got equipment that I know other people don’t have.”

The new ambulance features a Stryker Performance-LOAD manual fastener, a $12,000 device that guides stretchers into position during the loading and unloading process.

“Every time we get a new truck, there’s some new technology with it,” McDuffie said.

Positioned in the center of the ambulance’s treatment area, the manual fastener protects the safety of the patient and caregiver during transportation. It meets Society of Automotive Engineers safety standards.

“It’s a whole new tracking system,” McDuffie said. “It secures the whole cot. Even if the ambulance rolled over, it’s not going anywhere.”  

In another advancement, the doors covering the drugs and supplies inside the ambulance open upward instead of sideways.

“I think the reason for that is that the glass tends to slide during situations like rollovers,” EMS Operations Director Bob Summers said. “Now the doors latch and lock.”

The new ambulance also features a new way to protect EMTs and paramedics.

“It has a (five-point) safety harness on the side instead of regular seat belts,” Parks said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, EMS workers have been spraying the agency’s five ambulances with a powerful disinfectant between uses. The disinfectant is transformed into a mist by an atomizer.

“We spray it into the back of the unit and the cab of the unit to kill the germs,” Summers said Thursday. “The coronavirus is one of the things it kills, among others.”

After the interior of the ambulance, including the stretcher, is sprayed, the doors are closed.

“We wait about ten minutes for the mist to settle and do its job,” Summers said. “It doesn’t require a wipedown. It’s the same stuff that is used at the hospital.”

Summers said the disinfectant sprayings might remain part of the EMS routine even after the coronavirus is gone.

Before entering a residence during a call — except in the case of extreme emergencies — the paramedics and EMTS perform interviews designed to determine if someone inside might have highly contagious disease.

“We need to know if someone in the family has it or if they have been in contact (with a coronavirus victim),” he said. “We need to know if they have been out of the country or in a particular area before we go into the house.”

In additional safety efforts, the EMTs and paramedics keep spray bottles filled with disinfectant handy. They also wear disposable clothing, including masks.

At the end of their shifts, EMS personnel remove their uniforms and put them in a plastic bag before heading home. The paramedics and EMTs also shower and put on a new set of clothes before departing their station.

EMS features 32 full-time employee and Summers is proud to be one of them. He has worked for it for 22 years.

“That says something about our service,” he said. “We have good equipment, equipment that’s needed, and we have good leadership.”

EMS’ full-time workers have more than 600 years of combined EMS experience. The agency also relies on 16 part-time workers.

“We’ve maintained the same staff ratio that we had last year,” McDuffie said. “We run four 24-hour trucks and we have one that operates just during the peak hours — 9 a.m.- 9 p.m. — seven days a week.”

It won’t be long before EMS will need a sixth ambulance.

“The national standard is one ambulance for every 10,000-12,000 in population,” McDuffie said. “We’re kind of at the cusp. I have asked for one for the next budget year but I don’t know if it made it.

“That’s just planning because of growth.”

Effingham County’s current population is approximately 62,000. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget projects Effingham County’s population will be 76,320 in 2030. The Coastal Regional Commission’s 2030 population projection is 121,000.

“My plan is for us to have five 24-hour trucks and at least one more peak-hour truck within the next five years,” McDuffie said.

 An additonal 24-hour ambulance would require the addition of six employees. 

EMS’s call volume has dipped a bit in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic but the numbers are starting to rise again now that some of the state government’s restrictions have been eased.

“Life is starting to get back to somewhat normal,” McDuffie said. 

EMS responded to 6,542 calls last year. That was about 150 more than in 2018.