I-TEAM UPDATE: ‘Status zero’ getting worse in Aiken County

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 6:45 PM EST
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - What was a crisis two and a half years ago is now on the brink of becoming catastrophic in Aiken County.

Our I-TEAM first exposed the ambulance shortage in 2020 when people in need of emergency medical services waited hours for help.

We’ve found it is about to get much worse in this update to our initial investigation.

We found more calls pending on 911 due to status zero this December than in four months combined during the height of the pandemic.

Two of the three private providers who help by responding to the county’s 911 calls have given notice they are pulling out.

Miles of farmland blanket the eastern part of Aiken County. Small sleepy towns sprinkle the landscape. There’s no hustle. There’s no bustle, but that’s beginning to change.

“It’s a family-oriented community.” David Watkins is the fire chief in Wagener. “We are the fifth busiest fire department in Aiken County.”

The Wagener Fire Department is one of 18 volunteer departments in the county. Volunteer firefighters are often the first to arrive at emergencies in rural areas.

“We are doing everything from CPR calls to overdoses to respiratory calls.”

Sometimes, they’re the only available help.

“Status zero is when every ambulance in the county is on a call or tied up at a hospital.”

Meaning someone experiencing a medical emergency must rely on volunteer firefighters with limited medical supplies and limited training to keep them alive until help can arrive.

Watkins recalls doing CPR for over 45 minutes waiting for an ambulance.

“Unfortunately, I am here again. I was here in 2020 to discuss this very same thing.”

Now, in 2023, the New Holland fire chief is warning county leaders again. He spoke before the council to deliver this warning.

“I thought there was some understanding of moving forward and things were going to get better. And they did. Just like I said, they’d get better for just a short period of time if you didn’t fix the problem.

One-year-old “Zay” was unresponsive when deputies got to her on Friday.

According to the incident report, the sergeant and the lieutenant drove the toddler to the hospital themselves due to Aiken County EMS having an extended estimated time of arrival.

Zay did not survive. She would have turned two in February.

The I-TEAM first exposed the crisis with status zero crisis in Aiken County in 2020. The county increased EMS pay and partnered with three private agencies hoping to fix the problem.

The New Holland Chief’s warning to the council: “They got better for about a year. And now back in the same boat. Actually, we’re in worse condition now than we were back in 2020.”

The I-TEAM looked back at four months of data from our investigation in 2020 and recent data from last month.

By March, the EMS crisis could escalate to a catastrophic level.

The CEO of Gold Cross and its sister company. Southstar sent these two letters to county leaders on January 10th.

“…intention to terminate…. emergency medical services 911 provider network agreement between Aiken County and Southstar….


“between Aiken County and Gold Cross…”

Two of the three private ambulance providers the county uses to respond to 911 calls will end services in Aiken County within weeks - by March.

Chief Watkins is floored. “That’s scary when you think about this private ambulance service who is trying to help the county is now pulling out.”

The I-TEAM analyzed data to get a preview of the potential impact on Aiken County. We compared the number of private ambulances in Aiken County to status zero reports.

In August of last year, Southstar and Gold Cross provided 82 EMS crews during August. During those 31 days, Aiken County still hit status zero 71 times, leaving 182 calls pending on 911.

In December, both ambulance services decreased crews by nearly 40-percent-the county hit status zero 102 times in those 31 days, leaving 280 calls pending on 911. That’s more than a 50 percent jump from August.

The CEO of Gold Cross and Southstar explains in his letters:

“…due to rising costs associated with providing services under this agreement….Southstar….Gold Cross…made a business decision to cease these services….our last day under the current agreement would be March 11th, 2023.”

Aiken County does not provide any sort of subsidy or reimbursement for indigent care to private providers, unlike Richmond and Columbia counties.  Long story short: Gold Cross and Southstar say they’re losing money.

“After that 30-minute window, the survival rate goes way down so it’s kind of discouraging to us because as firefighters, we are here to save lives.” Says Chief Watkins.

But in December, he lost three lives while waiting on help to arrive.

Council voted to hire a third-party consultant to pinpoint the reason behind the high turnover rate with Aiken County EMS.  Fire chiefs in the area believe the problem is management. In the meantime, the county is already advertising for new shifts- 24 on 72 off with higher pay.