COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - They respond when you call 911. They are among the first to arrive on the scene to help you or your family member during emergency situations. However, some of Richland County's first responders say there's an emergency at Richland County Emergency Management Services.
Staffers with Richland County EMS say the department is stretched thin, overworked, and underfunded.
Over the course of five months, we spoke with several anonymous whistleblowers and former employees with direct knowledge of concerns at the department.
Greg Sieverding, one of those former employees, left Richland County in 2015. His 34-year resume as a paramedic includes experience in six states including three combat tours in Iraq and medicine with the military. Sieverding says he is one of many who went to work for a neighboring county.
"I was with them only 10 months, that was about all that I could tolerate," Sieverding said. "For me, personally, I hold four college degrees. For me to have a high school graduate who's been a paramedic for 10 years telling me that I have to perform in a particular manner, which was what I considered subpar medicine. It was demeaning. I felt bad for my patients and it was upsetting to me."
Current employees who work for Richland County now tell us that not much has changed since Sieverding's departure -- other than the fact more people like Sieverding have left, too.
Many people like Sieverding say they come to Richland County thinking this is where they will retire -- people like Matt Gottlieb, who left the department in 2016.
"I went to Richland County expecting that to be my last career change," Gottlieb said.
Several others who now work in Lexington County wanted to keep their name off the record for this story.
Emergency in Richland County EMS
On any given weekend in Richland County, EMS employees say it's possible only 12 ambulances are responding to 911 calls for the entire county. Some call it a dangerous precedent because those calls can come from anywhere in Richland County on a busy weekend night.
"I had a car accident on I-20 out by Kershaw County. I was responding from Blythewood to that call," Sieverding said.
Sometimes the closest ambulance might be responding from 20 plus miles away, according to Sieverding.
Employees who spoke out at an in-service training meeting in August said this is because they are so short staffed.
"We are so short-staffed at EMS that people are leaving every week to go to surrounding counties because of insurance," one anonymous employee said. "If we continue down this road when someone calls 911 there will not be an ambulance to go because there will be no crew to drive it."
We obtained a copy of a nearly four-hour recorded in-service training meeting where several EMS employees were in attendance. The meeting is supposed to be used for training employees. However, recently it was used as a place where employees could express their frustrations and concerns with management and county leaders.
"You need to understand the gravity of what I am saying," one employee said. "We need people. We are getting called in on our off days. We are working standby. We get called in at four in the morning.
"Staffing is so critically short right now that we are working dozens of overtime hours, and are being told we have to take unpaid standby days."
Sources say these employees are forced to be available to get called in or else they face write-ups and possible suspensions. According to whistleblowers, this is common and has been the case for years.
Kevin Bronson, the former assistant county administrator of Richland County, admitted to a staffing crisis during the meeting with employees.
"Your staffing level didn't get to be a crisis in one day," Bronson said.
The tension in the room ramped up as employees expressed concerns about the rising cost of insurance, staffing issues, and the need for better funding and management.
"One of your colleagues wrote a list of 50 points why it sucks to be at Richland County EMS. My first thoughts are either kill yourself or go away," Bronson said.
"That's [expletive] to say," one frustrated employee responded.
"So does it suck that bad?" Bronson asked.
The questions caused the room to erupt into a shouting match.
"We need to be understood," an employee said. "We need to be heard and not told that we are working on it. It might not be today or this week. It needs to be today and this week. It needs to be. This is an emotional situation."
Applause filled the room.
That meeting eventually led to Bronson's resignation -- largely on the comments he made telling employees to commit suicide if they weren't happy with the county.
However, employees expressed concerns that Bronson's resignation does not solve the department's problems. Employees called this a small glimpse into a bigger problem within the department.
Richland County EMS comparison
"Richland should be the premier agency of the state and they are not," Sieverding said.
Richland County has a population at 407,000, not including colleges, state and federal governments, interstate traffic and Fort Jackson. In Richland, where the population is on the rise and calls for services are increasing, is the emergency services department doing everything it can to keep up? Our investigation shows staffing and funding are decreasing.
Richland County EMS' 2017 budget -- $11 million -- is lower than both Greenville and Lexington counties -- both $16 million and $14 million respectively.
The county's 2016 budget was set at $13 million.
Richland County paramedics will respond to more than 72,000 calls in 2017. Greenville, which is similar in size to Richland County, has more than 450,000 residents. EMS workers there will respond to 80,000 calls. Lexington County EMS will respond to more than 40,000 calls this year. However, Richland County has 84 full-time paramedics. Lexington has 76. Greenville has 133.
"As I started to interact with other members from outlying agencies, they were like, 'Ugh, I can't believe you moved down here to work for Richland County,'" Sieverding said. "That's when I really started to notice this lack of leadership, this lack of direction."
Has response time led to any deaths? It depends on who you ask.
"I didn't deal with it personally during my time," Sieverding said. "I didn't have a personal experience with it, but I have heard those tales as well."
However, other EMS employees have said otherwise.
"We are killing people," one anonymous employee said. "Yeah. We're literally killing people."
The county's response?
It was nearly six months ago when a whistleblower brought forward a laundry list of complaints about Richland County EMS. Before that, they brought their concerns to management.
"I am here to tell you that management causes loss of employees, not employees," Sieverding said.
Some of them even went to council members. In fact, in 2015, a motion was brought forward to a county council meeting to examine the EMS department before their complaints were swept under the rug.
"No one wants to come to this department," one employee said. "I have talked to people on a waiting list for Lexington County."
Since that time, more people have quit and left to go work for neighboring counties, and those who are still there are begging for help.
The department is back in the spotlight at county council meetings for the first time since 2015. In September, a motion was sponsored to examine the EMS department and have a report on its current status. But even then, the issues were again pushed to the backburner and the issues went unheard in more than one meeting.
The motion was barely even read out loud.
We made several attempts to interview Michael Byrd, director of Richland County EMS, and Gerald Seals, Richland County's administrator. Both declined our request for an interview.
However, we did learn that Byrd has been begging county administration for more staff.
"Mike Byrd has been asking for more staff probably for over a decade and no one has been willing in administration or council to give EMS more staff," ex-county administrator Kevin Bronson said. "Last year I was here, we didn't even propose it to the council. We pushed it off to the side."
The price for information
Richland County estimated it would cost us $19,066 to find out just how much they are struggling through a Freedom of Information Act request. We have spent nearly $400 for information -- some of which we have yet to receive from Richland County.
For more on this story, tune into WIS News 10 at 6 p.m. on Monday.