Delaware County emergency medical services Chief Mike Schuiling says it's "highly unlikely" the county will take over EMS operations in Liberty Township.
For two months, township trustees have discussed a proposal that would replace the township's cross-trained fire and EMS services with Delaware County's exclusively EMS-trained crews.
Trustee Shyra Eichhorn has been outspoken in her opposition to the change, while trustees Melanie Leneghan and Mike Gemperline have voted to continue exploring options and have blocked Eichhorn's attempts to stop that exploration, slow the process or create a task force to investigate the township's options.
The proposed change has been met with ire from residents, who have packed four consecutive board meetings to express their concerns that the change would result in lower service levels.
But Schuiling said "a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication" has made the issue inscrutable.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, Schuiling said, is the way the township and county EMS services coexist.
Schuiling said the current operation dates back to 1971, when Delaware County established a countywide EMS service. Because the service covered the entire county, it was "statutorily required" to have a presence "or be able to respond" to everywhere in the county, he said.
A year later, Schuiling said, the county "recognized we were limited in response and finances" and chose to contract with Liberty Township and the city of Delaware to allow those entities to provide their own EMS "in lieu of Delaware County."
To this day, he said, the county still pays Liberty Township and Delaware on a "per-run basis." He said the county has paid about $235,000 each year for the last seven years to Liberty Township.
"That contract has been relatively unchanged for the last 45 years," Schuiling said. "The service has grown as the emergency medical care has grown in the last 45 years."
Last year, Schuiling said, Delaware County commissioned an assessment of its EMS services. Because the services provided by Liberty Township and Delaware are within its coverage areas, they needed to be included in the assessment.
"We had no intention of looking at any processes for the (Liberty) fire department or anyone else," Schuiling said, "but because we're contracted with those two, those had to be looked at as well."
That report is now known as the Fitch Report, which has been cited as the impetus for the conversation surrounding Liberty Township's EMS operations.
For Schuiling, the report's only purpose was to identify "inefficient" areas that still technically are the county's responsibility, he said.
"There's no system of checks and balances that allows the county commissioners to be assured that they're getting a return on our investment," he said. "At no time was anyone questioning the ability or validity of Liberty Township.
"What we wanted to be certain of is that we were getting a return on what we were paying for," Schuiling said. "There were some things we found that we felt were inefficient. As we move forward to solidify those contracts and meet the parameters on the Fitch Report, that's where we are today."
Since then, Schuiling said township trustees -- led by Leneghan -- "approached Delaware County and asked for a proposal for if we were to take over their EMS."
Now, Schuiling said he believes the most likely outcome is for Delaware County, the city of Delaware and Liberty Township to renegotiate an "intergovernmental services agreement" that would "essentially not change anything," but would give all parties "a better grasp on patient-care protocol, physician medical direction and patient-care quality-assurance reporting."
He said he doesn't believe Liberty Township is doing a bad job and said he thinks the service its fire and EMS crews provide is excellent. But because Liberty fire and EMS units have to do both jobs, "when Liberty is fighting a fire, Delaware County becomes the primary EMS provider for the township."
Schuiling said that can lead to logistical difficulties. While the current quality of care is good, he said he believes it can be better with more cooperation.
"All departments in Delaware County are providing the utmost, highest care available," he said. "Delaware County is very fortunate we have an EMS system that is as productive as we are. You can go 20 miles in any direction and not find that quality of care.
"What we are working toward is that we're all on the same page, because they're a contracted service and we want to make sure they're providing the same care we are, because they're doing it on behalf of Delaware County EMS."
What Schuiling least wants to see, he said, is Liberty employees losing their jobs.
"There's this thought of, 'We want to have local control over our EMS,' " he said. "I think more importantly, what (concerns) are boiling down to is that firefighters are going to be losing their jobs.
"We do not want to see anybody lose their jobs, period. Even if we were to move into their station, their firefighters will still be needed at the same level as they are today where they're running both EMS and fire."
But Schuiling reiterated that he thinks it's "highly unlikely" that Delaware County takes the "move-in" approach. He said the most likely outcome is simply a "more-solidified, shored-up" service agreement.
"Because both departments are offering an equally high level of patient care, I believe that either outcome will be good for the residents," he said. "It may not necessarily be the cheapest, but it will be a good outcome."
Schuiling said he knows his department isn't the "hometown team" but said it's "still our community" and his department wants what's best for each municipality.
In the meantime, he said, he hopes productive dialogue can emerge from a largely unproductive atmosphere.
"Because we're dealing with a lot of emotion, there's been a lot of mudslinging and a lot of misinformation," he said. "There's things being touted that are just downright wrong about other agencies. ... It's not helping anybody."
The future of Liberty Township's EMS, meanwhile, remains uncertain.
Leneghan said in December that a decision on that topic was likely months away, and said the discussion would continue both in private and public sessions throughout the first months of 2019.
At the trustees' most recent meeting Jan. 7, Leneghan said she met with Delaware County Commissioner Jeff Benton in November to talk about "all the issues of the residents that came to the commissioners meeting."
"He and I met to discuss the concerns the residents had regarding Delaware County EMS," she said. "He wrote down every concern and he researched every concern and he went over that with me."
Liberty Township trustees are scheduled to meet Tuesday, Jan. 22. At that meeting, the board likely will make a decision about the township's medical director, Warren Yamarick, whose contract was extended through January.
Trustees Leneghan and Gemperline voted earlier this month to authorize Leneghan to negotiate with a new medical director.