Suspended state funding leaves local EMS in the lurch
The Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services is under investigation for misspending millions of dollars for an unknown number of years. In the meantime, it's withheld funding from local agencies for most of 2023 – and the effects are serious. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
The Office of EMS, a division of the Virginia Department of Health, distributes funding to local fire and rescue squads and regional EMS councils. Since the agency stopped handing over those funds nine months ago, local emergency medical services are feeling the crunch. Aging equipment is left unreplaced. Region-wide trainings are at risk of shutting down. An important annual conference was canceled.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this month that, so far, the state has not revealed exactly how much money is missing, and whether it was intentionally diverted or just mismanaged. Gary Brown, who led the agency for 27 years, announced his retirement in October amidst the investigation.
The links in the EMS chain taking the most direct hit are the 11 regional councils across the state, which rely on the Office of EMS for the majority of their funding. These independent organizations provide training for fire and rescue agencies and make plans for mass casualty events, among other big-picture coordination services.
The Thomas Jefferson EMS Council, or TJEMS, serves Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison and Nelson. According to their 2022 annual report, nearly 60% of their funding comes from the state office.
JOHN LYE: It's a very serious concern.
John Lye is the president of the TJEMS board of directors. He said their council is in the fortunate position of having a rainy day fund.
LYE: It has allowed us to keep our employees paid … but we're going to run out of money fairly soon if this does not get resolved. Some other of the regional councils that … were really sort of paycheck to paycheck, I anticipate that if something isn't done soon, some of them may be shutting programs down and furloughing employees possibly as early as the end of the year, if not the first quarter of next year.
He said they were recently informed that the state will send them close to one annual quarter's worth of money soon.
LYE: So it's definitely not what we're owed, but it's enough that it'll keep our doors open a little bit longer.
Lye is an EMT himself, and one of the leaders of Lake Monticello Volunteer Fire and Rescue in Fluvanna County. He said if regional EMS councils shut down, an immediate problem for local agencies will be the training their personnel need to get and stay licensed.
This is likely to hit small, rural, volunteer fire and rescue departments especially hard, because they lack other organizations nearby that would offer those courses. Many firefighters and paramedics get that continuing education at an annual symposium in Virginia Beach, which was scheduled for early November this year. But that got canceled in the fracas, too.
The Virginia Fire Chiefs Association has their own annual conference in February, and they've added extra training to try and fill the void. Board President Allen Baldwin told WMRA that next year's symposium may also be canceled. A spokesperson with the Office of EMS said they "continue to evaluate all programs for cost savings opportunities. EMS education will remain a priority," but they have not yet decided about the 2024 symposium.
Baldwin said that losing training opportunities and scholarships for paramedic students could severely damage local fire and rescue departments.
ALLEN BALDWIN: I see us struggling, again, to get people trained, retain people, hire new people, for some services and jurisdictions to be able to maintain full levels of service.
Another piece of funding that's been guillotined is the Rescue Squad Assistance Fund, which awards grants for EMS equipment. Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matthew Tobia told WMRA their department applied for e-bikes for their paramedic bike team, and were told that the program had been suspended.
Winchester Fire Chief Jon Henschel had hoped to win one of those grants to replace a 14-year-old ambulance at the Shawnee Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department on the south side of the city.
JON HENSCHEL: It experiences a lot of downtime for maintenance and repairs, and it is impactful to the community, because we have to stand up another unit, or we have to change some things we do with service delivery. … We do have a couple backup ambulances in our fleet, so right now we're not in dire straits, but it is impactful, and it does have a longer-term impact.
Henschel and the volunteer crew are looking at using fundraising money to replace the $400,000 vehicle, but the depth of their pockets is limited. Another casualty of this crisis is a contract the state previously paid for – an app that calculates the medication that paramedics administer. Now, local fire departments have to pick up that tab.
HENSCHEL: We need the government entity to be more transparent. I understand they're going through an investigation and audit, but we need to know when they intend to roll out funding. … Many people across the Commonwealth rely upon emergency services to come and care for them and their loved ones in their time of need, and this will have a detrimental impact on the entire service.
Baldwin, board president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, agreed that the situation is critical.
BALDWIN: We need to get some communications going. … We do emergency funding every day for things. Can we not do some emergency funding to make this right until they can figure this audit and everything else that goes on with it out?
John Lye, with the Thomas Jefferson EMS Council, encouraged anyone who wants to help to contact your local agency and ask about volunteering. Thank you to everyone, volunteer or career, who's picked up that mantle already.