Long time coming, a Blowing Rock-based ambulance finally a reality (at least for now)

Long time coming, a Blowing Rock-based ambulance finally a reality (at least for now)
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By David Rogers. December 14, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Even if it is only for less than half a day, three days a week, Blowing Rock finally has ambulance service based within the town limits, in a bay made available at Station #1 of the Blowing Rock Fire Department, on Valley Blvd.

Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

This is the first step in the Watauga County Board of Commissioners’ pledge three years ago and reaffirmed just a couple of months ago that Blowing Rock will have an ambulance based here.  At a County Board of Commissioners retreat in early 2014 that was attended by Blowing Rock News in its entirety, the then sitting commissioners openly discussed a need for expanding the services provided by Watauga Medics under contract with the county.  Blowing Rock Emergency Services Director Kent Graham made a strong case for basing an ambulance at Station #1, given the older demographics of the Blowing Rock population generally, documented response times that were nearly double the industry standard for what is “acceptable”, and the fact that Blowing Rock would make the ambulance bay inside the station available at little, if any cost to the County.

Ready to roll…

At the time, the Commissioners were sympathetic to Blowing Rock’s expressed needs and desires, but it was also pointed out that where response times to Blowing Rock were averaging 12-14 minutes with 20 minutes being an outlier time, many parts of western Watauga County were far longer, reaching as high as 30-40 minutes for ambulance crews to respond due to the remoteness of the region and the access roads to get there.

It can well be argued that the Commissioners did the right thing by spending approximately $700,000 to build a new ambulance base in Vilas where U.S. 321 splits with U.S. 421 and adding at least one new ambulance crew to the county services at an estimated cost of $170,000 per 12-hour crew.  In doing so, they said, “Blowing Rock will be next.”

Fast forward to the October 17, 2017, meeting of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners attended by Blowing Rock News where Craig Sullivan, owner of Watauga Medics, presented a plan for a new 12-hour ambulance crew to serve Watauga County generally, but to be primarily be based at the Blowing Rock station. The plan was part of the renewal of Watauga Medics contract with the county. While the new agreement was ratified at the October 17th meeting, North Carolina General Statute 153A-46 requires that a grant, renewal, extension, or amendment of any franchise to be passed at two regular meetings of the Board of Commissioners before it may be adopted. 

The County Board of Commissioners heard the second reading at their November 21, 2017, meeting and ratified the amended renewal for the requisite second time.  For the balance of 2017, a crew is being stationed in Blowing Rock “on a trial basis”, until the new contract goes fully into effect on January 1, 2018.

While the minutes for the October and November (2017) meetings of the county commissioners does not state that the new ambulance crew is to be stationed in Blowing Rock, Chairman John Welch confirmed to Blowing Rock News in a follow-up interview that the intention of the Commissioners is that it will be based in Blowing Rock. While we cannot find anywhere that the Commissioners’ intention has been memorialized in writing, in good faith we can take the Chairman at his word.

I think a property tax increase to improve ambulance service and strengthen our education infrastructure would have been a much more palatable mission than to fund a recreation center with debatable benefits for the entire county…Establishing priorities for Education and Emergency Services over Recreation seems like a no-brainer. Education is investing in our youth and our future. Emergency Services is the difference between life and death.

It should be noted that as with all ambulances in the county, based on anticipated increased demand because of special events, for example, individual ambulances may be shifted around among the now four bases (two in Boone) in Watauga County.

Last spring, Blowing Rock News interviewed sitting Commissioner Larry Turnbow, who represents the Blowing Rock area on the County Board.  Turnbow explained that one of the challenges for approving an ambulance based in Blowing Rock is the town’s location on the southern border with Caldwell County. He said that if you draw an equi-distance circle around the base as the potential service area for that particular ambulance, then half of the ambulance’s potential utilization is, at least in theory, being wasted.

New Information?

One of the interesting revelations from the October 17th meeting of the Commissioners was a public statement by Welch that with the new 12-hour crew, Watauga will only just be bringing the countywide monetary commitment to ambulance service to a level equal to that of Ashe County, served by a different company but of the same ownership as Watauga Medics.  In review of U.S. Census data, Blowing Rock News notes that Ashe County has a marginally larger land area to cover than Watauga County, but the latter has 28,000 more people to serve.

One Blowing Rock businessman asking to remain anonymous commented, “You could make an argument that past Watauga County Commissioners dropped the ball in keeping up with the population growth and rate of residential and business development in Watauga County, if the new crew just brings us up to a level equal to Ashe County with its smaller population. As for a 12-hour crew based in Blowing Rock now, I just hope that I know which day and which 12-hour period they are on duty here when I have a heart attack or need emergency medical attention requiring life-saving transport to the hospital.  That is another way of saying that a 12-hour shift in Blowing Rock is just a start, and very likely an inadequate start at that.

“Plus,” he added, “You would think that before spending an estimated $30 million or more on a new recreation center in Boone that will primarily, if not exclusively serve Boone residents, the County should first be looking to insure top flight emergency services for ALL of the county taxpayers, north, south, east and west of Boone and there are an increasing number of us. While they increased the budget for addressing infrastructure problems at our schools, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to what I understand are the needs. Establishing priorities for Education and Emergency Service over Recreation seems like a no-brainer, but obviously I am missing something because that is not what they have done. I think a property tax increase to improve ambulance service and strengthen our education infrastructure would have been a much more palatable mission than to fund a recreation center with debatable benefits for the entire county. Education is investing in our youth and our future. Emergency Services is the difference between life and death.”

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