Sunday Focus: Is county’s use of multiple ambulance companies putting athletes at risk?

Published 12:15 am Sunday, September 4, 2016

NATCHEZ — Cathedral football player Daniel Garrity said he felt the worst blow he has ever felt in Cathedral’s home opener on Aug. 26.

The play was going smoothly for the linebacker. One of the first players to swarm a St. Joseph-Madison ball carrier, Garrity wrangled the running back’s legs, when his safety flew in to finish the tackle. Garrity’s head jerked backward when his teammate’s knee hit him in the chinstrap, and he was down.

And he stayed down.

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When coaches and trainers rushed onto the field, Garrity told them he had a “sharp pain in his neck” when he tried to sit up.

“When I told them my neck hurt, they got immediately on the phone,” Garrity said.

Garrity said a local physician soon came on the field and evaluated him, testing his grip and the feeling in his feet.

“I remember about five to 10 minutes later, they called (for an ambulance) again,” Garrity said.

More than 20 minutes after he hit the ground, Garrity was carried off the field to be transported to the hospital.

Whose call?

American Medical Response spokesman Jim Pollard said the company’s communications center received a call from 911 dispatchers to respond to the scene at Cathedral at 8:06 p.m. Pollard said AMR’s five crews were attending to other calls, and the closest available ambulance was in Fayette.

“While that ambulance was on the way to the game, we examined the options for getting a different ambulance to the high school sooner than the Fayette crew could get there,” Pollard said.

Metro-Miss Lou Ambulance Services Operations Manager Jim Graves said Metro received a call from AMR’s dispatcher in Gulfport at 8:15 p.m., and Metro immediately dispatched an ambulance to Cathedral. The Metro ambulance arrived on the scene at Cathedral at 8:23 p.m.

Graves said Metro and AMR both relay calls to one an other from time to time, rather than working through a third-party dispatcher.

“(Metro takes calls from AMR) if they’re busy or if they aren’t available,” Graves said, adding the reverse is also true.

Metro arrived at the scene and transported Garrity on a hard board to a hospital for further evaluation.

Sense of urgency

The incident marked the second in a two-week span of games in the Miss-Lou in which paramedics were called to a football game. One week earlier, Madison-Ridgeland Academy player Breckon Young went down during his team’s season opener against Adams County Christian School. The elapsed time from the evaluation of the injured play to the arrival of the emergency vehicle was also approximately 30 minutes.

“It’s obviously a scary thing when a kid goes down and has to be carted off,“ ACCS head coach and headmaster David King said. “Obviously (an ambulance) didn’t get there as fast as it would if it were already there, but I think Natchez is good at a lot of things, and I think (the paramedics) did the best they could in that situation.”

Cathedral High School assistant football coach Kurt Russ reached out to Adams County Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus last week regarding the slow response time to Garrity’s injury.

“It took over 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive,” Russ wrote in an email to Lazarus. “Thank God the injury was not life-threatening or he would have died! This is unacceptable as (a) tax-paying citizen of Adams County and as (a) football coach! Had he died, the lawsuits would have been flying starting with Adams County for NOT having a contract with an ambulance service.”

In recent months, the board of supervisors has reviewed its current policy of using multiple ambulance services in the county and whether a single provider would improve emergency-response times.

Backtrack with the board

Supervisors voted down a motion to seek a single provider for emergency ambulance services in the county in late July.

AMR Operations Manager Tim Houghton said the appointment of a company as the sole provider of emergency medical responses would help shorten the response time of ambulances to emergency scenes.

The current system, in which multiple companies rotate calls, does not always provide the closest ambulance to the scene of an accident, rather the closest vehicle owned by the company whose turn it is to respond to a call.

Houghton also said under supervision of county officials, regulations can be put in place that set response parameters.

“(Adams County could mandate) I have to be at 90 percent of emergency calls in 10 minutes or less, or I’m subject to penalties,” Houghton said. “(A mandate) gives the county the overall authority and responsibility.”

Lazarus said he and Supervisor David Carter voted to seek a sole provider for EMS, but other supervisors rejected the motion. Lazarus said it is extremely unlikely the motion will reach the floor again before the end of 2016.

“I understand everyone’s frustration, and that’s a scary thing,” Lazarus said. “The ambulance ordinance is something we need to keep thinking about. It holds people accountable.”

In the meantime, Adams County EMA Director Robert Bradford issued at least a temporary solution last week. The four Natchez-area schools were split based on location, and each company is responsible for covering their respective schools. AMR is designated to cover Cathedral and Trinity Episcopal home games, while Metro is assigned to cover Natchez and ACCS home games.

“I just put a suggestion out. It’s up to carriers to carry that out,” Bradford said. “We have two ambulance services … We thought it was the best plan to mitigate between the two.”

Friday night, an AMR ambulance was stationed on site during Cathedral’s game against Jackson Prep.

What does it cost?

Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Director of Activities Les Triplett said the association does not require schools to have ambulances on site during sporting events. The reason, Triplett said, is simple — not enough emergency response vehicles are available to accommodate affiliated schools in all areas.

However, that is not necessarily the case in Natchez.

In Natchez, AMR has a fleet of 17 trucks, Houghton said. With ample notification, AMR has the ability to provide staff and trucks at home football games in the Miss-Lou and still have enough trucks available to make regular emergency calls.

That’s not to say, however, such coverage would not come without a cost.

“We’re private companies,” Houghton said. “The schools need to have ambulance coverage, but I have to pay people to cover that game. There should be some way for me not to eat that expense on my payroll.”

Houghton said he had not been contacted by any Miss-Lou school to inquire the details of stationing a vehicle on campus for games prior to Aug. 31.

Graves said Metro provided a truck for Natchez High School’s home football opener Aug. 19. Natchez High was the only school to reach out.

Graves directs a fleet of 10 trucks. He said the truck stationed at Natchez High on Friday nights is still utilized in routine emergency calls, leaving campus to answer a call and being replaced by another truck shortly after.

“We’ll sit the truck there, and if we have a call, we’ll run it and go back,” Graves said. “We try not to charge the school if we can help it.”

Graves said Natchez High School reached out to ask for Metro to provide a truck prior to the football season. Graves said he does not charge the school to station the vehicle.

Schools are not currently being charged for posted vehicles.

School officials said cost was an issue prior to Bradford’s plan. Cathedral headmaster Pat Sanguinetti said he has never reached out to a local ambulance company to inquire the cost of stationing a vehicle on campus during sporting events. He said he “couldn’t imagine” Cathedral footing the bill for an on-site emergency response vehicle.

“It’s nice to have them … I’d love to have an ambulance,” he said. “I’ve told parents, it’s not a discussion I’m even going to take up. If there is a problem, you need to talk to your board of supervisors. … They’re the ones who dictate whether we’re going to have one ambulance company here or three.”

King said any measure to prevent injury to athletes is worth the cost, but he has not taken measures to inquire details regarding stationing a truck on school campus.

“We obviously need to look into it more, maybe having someone on tap the entire time,” King said. “(Natchez) is a smaller town. In Jackson, it might take an hour for (an ambulance) to get five miles down the road.”

In some cases, however, on-site paramedics have been unable to prevent serious bodily harm, even death.

Franklin Parish High School football player Tyrell Cameron fell injured during a game in September 2015 and died shortly after he was transported to Franklin Medical Center. Northeast Louisiana Ambulance Service was on the sidelines during the game and rushed onto the field to help when Cameron was injured.

Neither the Mississippi High School Activities Association nor the Louisiana High School Athletics Association handbooks specify the necessity of on-site paramedics at live sporting events. An ambulance was stationed on site at Vidalia High School’s first regular season game Friday.

Preventing catastrophe

Garrity was in school the Monday following the injury.

His injury was diagnosed as a cervical strain of the muscles in his neck, which will not cost him playing time.

Garrity has been permitted to run during practice, and CT scans have not revealed damage to the brain that would indicate a concussion or severe damage to his spine.

“It’s getting better and better every day,” Garrity said.

The consensus in the athletics community is still to err on the side of caution and see past injuries as a warning that, particularly in the high-risk game of football, serious injuries are possible.

“I think maybe it’s something all of these schools need to look into, communicating and seeing what it would cost to have somebody on site,” King said.