“You owe the county an apology:” Retired fire chief criticizes Hawkins commission for no action on EMS recommendations

Bill Killen addressing the Public Safety Committee in September

“[Some members of the EMS Exploratory Committee] are disgusted with the Hawkins County Commission’s lack of action, inaction and lack of understanding of the degree of life safety that’s at risk by the decisions this county has made,” Retired fire chief Bill Killen told the Hawkins County Commission’s Public Safety Committee last Wednesday.

Bill Killen has a 62-year fire service career that includes service with the original Apollo Astronaut Rescue Team. In recent years, he has also been active in numerous public safety committees throughout the county, including the EMS Exploratory Committee, which was appointed in 2019 to study the delivery and efficacy of EMS in Hawkins County.

Killen, who was part of the committee, widely criticized the commission and the PSC last week for failing to heed the committee’s EMS recommendations.

“They’re disgusted with the Commission’s lack of action”

This is not the first time that Killen has brought this information before the PSC. In fact, Killen has brought the recommendations of the EMS Exploratory Committee before the PSC at numerous meetings, written Letters to the Editor in the Review and even collaborated with the Review on an in-depth article that detailed the current condition of each of Hawkins County EMS’s ambulances.

Chairman Dawson Fields told the PSC last week that he had spoken with Killen about the Exploratory Committee’s recommendations after the September PSC meeting and noted that the PSC needed to revisit these recommendations.

“We’ve got to re-vamp and go back and look at [the Exploratory Committee’s recommendations] as far as how many ambulances were needed in the county,” Fields said. “We will be bringing that back up as soon as we can get back to it. We should have probably already done some of it, looked at it and talked about it. But, we will revisit that.”

On this note, Killen stood to address the PSC, noting that the Commission initially appointed an EMS Exploratory Committee in 2016; however, the Commission at the time took no action on the committee’s recommendations. Another exploratory committee was then appointed in 2019, and they presented their recommendations to the full Commission in October of 2019. Killen served on both EMS committees.

“Since that time, my survey of the minutes posted on the county’s website reflects no discussion or reference to the EMS report or Dr. (Blaine) Jones’s (who chaired the 2019 committee) recommendations at any of the County Commission meetings that I was able to search or this group.”

He noted that the committee recommended that the county have nine staffed ambulances, operating 24-hours per day, to serve a county the size of Hawkins; yet, HCEMS only currently has five continually-staffed units.

Killen also pointed to the report that EMS Director Jason Murrell had given minutes before, which noted that his office had seen an increase in call volume since the pandemic began.

“The information I have is that ambulances have been tied up and there has only been one—and sometimes no—ambulances available in this county at times,” Killen said. “The Commission made the choice for the people of this county by awarding a franchise to an entity that only staffs five ambulances.”

He stated that this decision was a “negative reflection on the county” rather than on Hawkins County EMS.

“You made that choice for me and everyone else in this county,” Killen added. “YOU are responsible for that. Not me. We have a serious problem and the fact that the county has done nothing for a year, many of us on that (EMS Exploratory) Committee feel like you’re thumbing your noses at us. I’m glad to hear you say you’re going to look at it and go back and revisit it.”

He added, “The members of the committee, and I’m not speaking for all of them, but the majority of them … they’re disgusted with the Hawkins County Commission’s lack of action, inaction and lack of understanding of the degree of life safety that’s at risk by the decisions this county has made. I think you owe the county an apology.”

“We will not apologize”

“We will not apologize for everything that has happened,” Fields replied. “It’s not personal, and it’s nothing that we personally have done ourselves. We had a pandemic hit and we were ordered to stop having meetings. We can say we’re sorry that we haven’t moved fast enough… We’re bankers for the county. That’s pretty much all we are, and we still have to depend on somebody who tells us what we can and cannot do.”

Fields also reiterated that the PSC will revisit the Committee’s recommendations soon.

Call volume increase

EMS Director Jason Murrell told the Review in August that several operating changes to local hospitals have brought about an increased need for 24-hour ambulances.

Due to the recent rise in local COVID-19 cases, Ballad Health announced on July 15 that they temporarily paused all overnight admissions and elective procedures at both Hawkins County Memorial Hospital and Hancock County Hospital, effective July 16.

Murrell told the Review in July that, since the implementation of these changes, HCEMS has seen an increase of three to four out-of-county transports per day.

“Call volume is up for everyone,” Murrell said at the Oct. 21 PSC meeting. “Our call volume has drastically increased from the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He also told the PSC that HCEMS current out-of-county transport numbers are 13% higher than what they were at this time last year.

Back in 2019, the exploratory committee recommended that the commission also “provide cash flow support to the EMS when required or if needed.”

During the Commission’s budget hearings for the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, Murrell requested an additional $90,000 be added to their funding to be used to remount one of the older ambulances.

This request, along with numerous other requests from various departments, was initially denied in an effort to conserve county funds and balance the budget. However, the commission included $275,000 within the budget at the last minute to be used to rebuild two ambulances, not to exceed $275,000.

Murrell told the PSC last week that the company performing the remounts may not be able to begin on HCEMS ambulances until after the beginning of January 2021 due to the pandemic and supply shortages.

These remounts will replace HCEMS ambulances that have exceeded or are approaching 300,000 miles.