Delaware County commissioners voted Feb. 7 to suspend a proposal to take over operation of Liberty Township emergency medical services and to form a new committee that will examine countywide EMS operations and protocol.

The decisions bring an end – at least for the foreseeable future – to a months-long discussion over the future of Liberty Township’s EMS, one that has become a hot-button issue for residents.

For more than two months, Liberty Township trustees have discussed a proposal from Delaware County that would replace the township’s cross-trained fire and EMS services with its own exclusively EMS-trained crews. The change reportedly would have saved the township an uncertain amount on reimbursements to the township and other fees paid.

Trustees Melanie Leneghan and Mike Gemperline have consistently supported the idea of exploring that change, while Trustee Shyra Eichhorn has vehemently opposed any change.

At each board of trustees meeting since the proposal was made public in November, angry residents have vocally demanded that the Liberty EMS remain under the control of the township.

Behind the scenes, a committee has been meeting to research and discuss the issue. That committee includes Powell Police Chief Gary Vest, Liberty fire Chief Tom O’Brien, city of Delaware fire Chief John Donahue, Delaware County director of emergency communications Patrick Brandt and Delaware County emergency medical services Chief Mike Schuiling.

Vest spoke in front of the commissioners Feb. 7 to offer the results of those meetings, and proposed what county Commissioner Barb Lewis called “the framework for an operational model that will allow us to improve our EMS system countywide.”

“We owe it to the county as it is today to be much broader in this discussion,” he said, “and quite frankly, any discussions in a narrow scope between one jurisdiction and another is counterproductive for this process.”

With Commissioner Jeff Benton absent from the meeting, Lewis and Commissioner Gary Merrell voted to establish a “countywide pre-hospital care system board of directors” in response to Vest and the committee’s findings.

Lewis thanked Vest for his work and said an invitation will be extended to all EMS providers in the county.

“A couple of weeks ago, you stated, ‘Protocols need to be built around patient care. We need to put patient care first. We were in error to discuss money before operations because the money would guide us to the wrong solutions,’ ” Lewis said to Vest. “I totally agree with that. Only by listening to our EMS experts will we find the best solutions for everyone concerned.”

Merrell said the group did “an exemplary job” of researching procedures and protocols and said he supported further research.

“I think it sends us on a road that we need to travel,” he said. “Procedures and protocols throughout this county are an issue; they’ve been an issue for a while. … The welfare of the people of this county is the priority.”

With the support of Lewis, Merrell proposed the suspension of the county’s proposal to take over Liberty EMS.

He thanked Liberty residents for their input and said those involved were “extremely professional on both sides of the issue” and were “sincere in expressing their concerns.”

“It is not unreasonable for trustees to ask, ‘Is there a better way?’ and that was done when the county was asked to submit a proposal,” he said. “But it is also reasonable and appropriate for Liberty residents to express their doubts and concerns as to why this proposal should be considered.”

Lewis stopped Merrell to ask if a word other than suspend could be used, making the decision more permanent. She said she preferred the different language “just to eliminate uncertainty,” but Merrell continued.

After the fact, Lewis said she wasn’t too bothered by the difference and said she doesn’t see the proposal being brought back to the table.

“I do think it’s unlikely,” she said. “I just don’t see it coming back.”

Lewis and Merrell both voted to approve the suspension of the proposal, meaning Liberty Township will continue to operate its emergency medical services.

Eichhorn, who has been vocal in her belief that EMS operation should stay under township control, said she was “excited” by the commissioners’ action.

“The way I see it is that we are going to continue with our award-winning township fire-based EMS model, and we will wait for a recommendation to come from this group for the next steps,” she said. “I think the key point is that they are seen as an advisory board, but we still maintain local control.”

Leneghan also said she was “excited” by the decision, and said she was pleased that “stakeholders who have not cooperated in the past have agreed to cooperate.”

She said changes such as soft billing on ambulance runs, a “consistent medical protocol” and “dispatching the closest, fastest emergency vehicle to all residents” are the outcomes she was looking for.

“The commissioners and myself are pleased with the recommendations to implement these improvements and to take steps toward increased service levels and a stronger alliance with our neighbors,” she said.