When Seconds Count: Columbia firefighters now trained to drive ambulances

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Four years and three months, is how long it has been since WIS opened up its investigation called "When Seconds Count."

It's an investigation to find out why, in Richland County, firefighters who respond to the same calls EMS workers do can't help out if the driver is tied up helping the patient, and drive the ambulance to the hospital.

WIS reporter Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield took over this investigation in 2009 and explains why as of Tuesday this policy will come to an end.

If you've ever had to answer the question, "What's your emergency?" you know time is of the essence.

Like when Mary Myer's husband became short of breathe the day he died. The ambulance arrived on the scene, so did a fire truck.

Ten minutes later Mary says the ambulance was parked and EMS workers assisted her husband while firefighters looked on, because they were not allowed to help.

"I find it obscene to allow this to happen," said retired firefighter Scott Wilkerson. "To allow patients, to allow victims out there, citizens out there not to have the best they can have is wrong."

In 2008, Fulkerson, a high ranking Columbia firefighter went public on WIS, days after his retirement, upset over a policy.

"People's lives are being lost and I can't stand by and watch it anymore," said Fulkerson.

The City of Columbia was in charge of firefighters and  the county over EMS, and because of policy  different from surrounding counties, firefighters weren't allowed to help drive.

At that time, EMS provided us with an explanation saying drivers need to know the intricacies of first aid to transport patients.

Time marched on after the policy was exposed.

A year and a half later, in 2009, WIS kept asking the city and the county, "why?" and received completely different answers from both sides.

According to Stephany Snowden with Richland County Government, the county has not been approached by city officials to cross-train everyone.

That's about the time county council member Jim Manning says he started asking his own questions.

"Somebody please tell me why a person who is trained and certified to drive a big huge old fire truck up to the scene can't drive a little old ambulance to the hospital in an emergency situation," said Manning

And so he rallied the county council and they met with the city and firefighters agreed it made sense.

"It was a total fight against change is what it was," added Manning.

After two and a half more years of figuring out insurance, getting certifications and training firefighters it's a battle that is over.

"Our county EMS workers have trained 200 firefighters to actually drive the ambulances," said Snowden.

This inner office memo WIS obtained shows that as of July 24th senior firefighters and fire engineers are allowed to drive ambulances.

It's the piece of paper Scott Fulkerson has waited five years to read.

"I'm happy to see with the help of Channel 10 and firefighters and EMS, people have come together to provide a better service for everybody," said Fulkerson. "I just hate that it took so long, several lives have been compromised since we had our first conversation."

"Everybody is winning, EMS is getting help, firefighters are getting trained and people are getting to the hospital quicker," Fulkerson added.

Bottom line, what this means for you if you make a 911 call in Richland County, like Mary Myers did on that day years ago, if the EMS workers who respond need to be in the back of the ambulance, the firefighters who also answer those calls will be able to jump in and get the patient to the hospital.

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