Doctor says Petersburg residents are in danger: ‘This is life or death situation’

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Petersburg Fire and EMS Medical Director Dr. Dusty Anderson is so concerned with the safety of ambulances in the city, he is willing to risk his job to try to make a difference.

“This is life or death situation,” Dr. Anderson said in reference to emergency medical care in Petersburg.

Anderson said he believes people's lives are in danger because of the situation.

"Because of the fact we are no longer able to provide the type of EMS that the Citizens deserve.”

So what's the problem in Anderson's view?

In Petersburg, emergency medical coverage is divided into four districts.

District 3 is handled by an ambulance from Petersburg Fire & EMS while districts 1, 2, and 4 are handled by Southside Virginia Emergency Crew's (SVEC) two ambulances.

The key difference between the two ambulance providers is the availability of Advanced Life Support or ALS.

SVEC provides two Advanced Life Support ambulances 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Conversely, Petersburg Fire & EMS often provides an ambulance with only Basic Life Support or BLS, a reality that gravely concerns Dr. Anderson.

While ALS providers are able to use advanced procedures, including starting IVs or reviving patients from cardiac arrest, “for patients that have truly life-threatening emergencies, the BLS Providers are very very limited on what they can do,” Dr. Anderson said.

The medical director also believes the problem is only going to get worse as EMS calls increase.

Shortly after joining the department last year, a task force made up of Petersburg Fire and EMS and Southside Virginia Emergency Crew developed a plan known as "The Path Forward" to handle the increasing number of medical calls.

The plan involved utilizing five ALS units on the street that would be split up between the two providers; three by Southside Virginia Emergency Crew and two by Petersburg Fire & EMS.

That was in July 2017. Fifteen months later, that has not yet happened.

“The quality of EMS over the last year, year and a half, unfortunately, isn’t where it needs to be,” Dr. Anderson said.

Anderson believes that the issues stem from the lack of ALS ambulances in Petersburg.

Instead of five Advanced Life Support Ambulances in the city “we now have two," Anderson said, both of which are provided by Southside Virginia Emergency Crew.

Just three years ago, in 2014, both agencies provided two ALS units each to the city. But now, according to Dr. Anderson, the fire department "no longer has an ALS ambulance staffed 24/7."

In 2017, Southside Virginia Emergency Crew responded to 6,970 medical calls while Petersburg’s Medic Unit answered 2,146.

Currently, if both SVEC units are tied up and a call for an Advanced Life Support Ambulance comes in, an ambulance from another jurisdiction must be called.

But as explained by Dr. Anderson, “Mutual Aid was not put in place to supplement a locality's EMS."

CBS 6 learned last year that neighboring jurisdictions had to send ambulances into Petersburg 236 times throughout the course of the year.

“If I lived in Company 3’s first due and I had a family member with a significant medical emergency, I would not sleep well at night,” Dr. Anderson said.

CBS 6 took Dr. Anderson’s concerns to Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, who now also serves as the Director of Public Safety for Petersburg.

Senior Reporter Wayne Covil spoke to Kevin Michalek, Petersburg Fire & EMS Division Chief of Emergency Medical Services and asked if citizens should be concerned.

“Right now no," Michalek explained. "I think we’re doing a great job of meeting the demands."

Chief Michalek said the Fire Departments Ambulance is not always staffed as a Basic Life Support Unit.

“It varies from day to day, if ALS providers are assigned to it for that day, it is ALS. Other days it runs as BLS," he said.

Chief Michalek further explained that the fire department was working to get more firefighters certified as paramedics.

“We’re working to implement certain projects with incentives for ALS Providers to get more," Michalek said.

But the process takes about a year, and costs $4,000 per firefighter, he said.

“We're looking at all alternatives to meet those needs, we've already identified some ways to provide funding for some training," he said, acknowledging that the increasing number of medical calls is a challenge. “All of our statistics are showing, pretty much, we should have four ambulances running the city non-stop."

Since the July 2017 plan is now off the table and a new one in the works, Dr. Anderson believes that there will be one immediate result stemming from his decision.

“I would anticipate that I would be asked to step down as the Medical Director for Petersburg," he said to CBS 6 senior reporter Wayne Covil.

Late Tuesday afternoon, CBS 6 News learned Dr. Anderson received a written letter from Petersburg’s Director of Budget and Procurement advising him that his contract is being terminated, effective December 30.

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Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations Tuesdays and Wednesdays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m.