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W.Va. lawmakers hear updates from EMS leadership during final interim session

WV Press Staff Report

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislature’s Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), on Sunday, heard presentations from both WV EMS Coalition Director Chris Hall and Office of Emergency Medical Services (OEMS) Director Jody Ratliff.

First to present was Hall, who began by thanking committee members for the support they’ve shown the EMS community over the past several years.

“This is the first time in decades that EMS in West Virginia really feels heard,” Hall said. “Now we hope we can turn some of that empathy into action.”

Despite the support of their legislative allies, Hall explained, the EMS Coalition feels that there is still a misunderstanding among lawmakers pertaining to the EMS community. 

“EMS is not the same everywhere,” Hall noted. “It’s very different from county to county, community to community, and how it’s organized. So today we want to provide a brief overview and a little background on EMS, and provide you with some recommendations we’ve come up with that we think can aid EMS in the coming year – some that require financial commitment, and some that don’t.”

According to Hall, EMS itself is in a “state of emergency in West Virginia,” adding that many citizens believe that ambulatory services are a part of county government. Hall further explained that 63 of the state’s EMS providers are non-profit organizations, accounting for approximately 40%. Approximately 17% are controlled by municipalities. The balance are supported by a variety of community initiatives. 

“We’re really relying on communities coming together to provide that care,” Hall said. “The foundation of West Virginia’s modern EMS system was developed in the 1970’s and 80’s, through multiple federal agencies providing grants. […] Those grants were used to purchase ambulances and other equipment. We came in with volunteers to staff the units, and we were able to build out the EMS system.”

“Those federal grants went away during the 80’s,” Hall continued. “We had a decrease in volunteerism. We’ve had an aging-out of a lot of those EMS workers, paramedics, and EMT’s who were volunteers before, and there’s a lot more demands on people’s time.”

Hall noted that increased response times, and the inability for EMS to assist in other communities are becoming more and more prevalent. 

“I’m hearing from communities, and no one wants to say this, but that ambulance may not be available when you call,” Hall said.

Among other things, Hall recommended that committee members consider a proposal for the state to purchase 50 new ambulances per year for a five year period, thus relieving a portion of the financial burden experienced by individual communities. 

“This type of program could potentially provide an incentive for counties to step up and do more,” Hall noted. 

At the conclusion of Hall’s remarks, OEMS Director Jody Ratliff presented committee members with the “three biggest requests in 2024 from the Office of EMS.”

“The first thing is we’re updating the protocols of our education department,” Ratliff began. “Our education department is so far outdated, it’s actually embarrassing. We’re not only just updating the format, we’re updating the content, so it’ll be better for patient care as we move forward.”

“The next thing we’re working on is licensure,” Ratliff continued. “The way we do agency inspections, we’ve been able to streamline that, and we’re actually going to be able to make it more streamlined for the future. That makes it easier for the agencies to continue doing what they need to do without causing any disruption to the operation.”

The third topic, Ratliff said, is mental health. According to Ratliff, as directed by the legislature during the last session, OEMS will be developing Critical Stress Debriefing Teams across different regions of the state. 

“We are working on that right now,” Ratliff told committee members. “We also continue to work with the 988 system for their crisis hotline. Our long term goals for mental health – we’ve been working with the EMS Coalition to develop whatever we can to help our folks. Just this past week I took two phone calls; one was to order one (EMS worker) to get help, and one was to basically convince one to get help.”

“Mental health is a crisis in this state within the EMS community,” Ratliff added. “It truly is.”

Sunday marked the final time the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and EMS will meet during the Interim period. The Legislature’s 60-day Regular Session begins on Wednesday. 

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