By Kendal Groner

After receiving a $315,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, the Town of Erwin can now push forward with efforts to establish its own ambulance service.

For well over a year, MedicOne, the county’s ambulance service provider, has seen inadequate staffing, long wait times, and simply not enough ambulances to respond to emergency calls. This has left MedicOne in direct violation of its contract with Unicoi County.

“There are times when we only have one ambulance in the city, and sometimes we don’t even have one available at all,” said Doris Hensley, Town of Erwin mayor. “Oftentimes we have to contact another county to see if they can help assist.”

The Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force was created in August of last year to address some of these concerns. Under the leadership of Jimmy Erwin, MedicOne’s operations manager for Unicoi County, the county has been working to increase its number of available paramedics and ambulances.

“MedicOne has been in violation of their contract since day one,” Hensley said. “This is either from a lack of vehicles, lack of personnel, or the vehicles are not properly equipped. I have had reports that some patients have had to wait as long as four hours before getting help. That’s just unacceptable.”

According to the MedicOne contract, four ambulances must be stationed in the county, but when Erwin was hired only two were available. MedicOne is now in compliance with the required number of ambulances, but staffing remains an issue.

“Police officers have had to answer emergency calls,” said Hensley. “They do have emergency training, but they haven’t had the medical training needed to respond to these calls. The most they can do is keep someone comfortable until they can see a medical professional.”

While the $315,000 grant will make a large dent in the funds needed to start a new ambulance service for the Town of Erwin, it will not cover all of the costs. It is estimated that it will take $460,400 to fully fund the project.

“We hope that the Hospital Foundation will provide the rest of the funding, and if not then the city will have to take it out of their fund balance to start it up,” Hensley said. “We think it will be self-supporting once it is up and running.”

There will be a lengthy process of finding a location to house the emergency services, getting the required certifications and licenses and hiring the needed paramedics and EMTs. According to Hensley, it could take another year before a new ambulance service is completely up and running.

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The grant funds were announced in a press release sent from the offices of State Sen. Rusty Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw on Friday, Sept. 22.

“Having access to ambulance services can be a matter of life or death,” said  Crowe, who strongly supported the grant application. “I am pleased that this grant will support emergency response efforts. The improvements this grant will make are significant. It reflects a greater investment in the infrastructure of our community, making it a safer place to live and work.”

According to the press release, the CDBG grant will be used to purchase and equip two Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances that would primarily serve Town of Erwin residents.

“Only 38 percent of applications for grants were awarded this year,” added Crowe and Holsclaw. “It is very competitive. We are very pleased that these funds have been awarded.”

Senator Crowe and Representative Holsclaw praised the work of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and her staff, the Town of Erwin aldermen, County Mayor Greg Lynch and other locally-elected officials. They also expressed appreciation to Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for their work in securing the funds.