Across the board, public safety and emergency outfits are struggling to remain staffed. McDuffie County is not immune to what some call an epidemic.
Emergency Medical Services for McDuffie and Glascock Counties is short by at least two entire ambulance crews, according to EMS Director Jane Rogers. The McDuffie County Sheriff's Department has just this year been trying to fill three deputy slots, according to McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.
During the ongoing struggle to staff these crews and patrols, some officials and citizens claim that the south end of McDuffie County is getting the short end of the stick. During February's Dearing City Council meeting, Councilman Allen Axon asked what it would take to station a deputy at the Dearing substation 24 hours a day.
And in January, Floyd Anderson approached county commissioners about stationing an ambulance in Dearing during school hours for the protection of the students after his grandson had a seizure. Both measures were shot down due to the lack of personnel.
"The only way be able to do that would be to have additional staff, and we are desperately looking for staff to cover primary ambulances as it is," Ms. Rogers said.
Two ambulance crews are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week while a third crew is staffed 16 hours a day. Ms. Rogers said the crews are basically stationed at McDuffie Regional Medical Center, but with the shortage, they are constantly out on calls.
"They're not physically here. People expect them to be physically here, but we're busy enough to where they're pretty much on the go all the time. So there's no way of telling where they will be when a call comes in," she said.
When the call load slows -- usually around 4:30 p.m. -- a crew is stationed in Dearing, she said.
But some contend that the crew should be in town during school hours, instead of two hours after school lets out. The response time to Mr. Anderson's two 911 calls in early January were 13 and 16 minutes, according to 911 Director Tracy Neal.
Mr. Anderson said after another recent call, it took an ambulance 23 minutes to reach his home just outside Dearing. His plea to the commission was on behalf of the safety of the students at Dearing Elementary School, but Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said student population numbers didn't support that argument.
Chairman Newton recommended during a January meeting that the ambulances not be moved because there are currently five schools around Thomson and only one in Dearing. While commissioners agreed with his assessment, DES Principal Linda Grisham didn't.
"My thought on that is that we have about 440 students that we think are just as valuable as all those schools in Thomson," she said. "We have about 80 staff members too. And that's just in our school. That doesn't qualify for people out at McCorkle's (Nurseries). ...This is a pretty large little community, and I value every life."
Staff members at DES have called an ambulance twice in recent years. According to Dr. Grisham, it took 25 minutes for the ambulance to get there on one occasion.
"Not having any kind of emergency services is difficult. I understand when they're short-handed anyway to come and sit in a small community, but we are dealing with life and death issues," Dr. Grisham said.
It isn't just the response time from medical services that have Dearing residents upset. Crime and public safety are issues as well. The shortage of deputies recently had the Dearing City Council questioning the town's protection. But according to Sheriff Marshall, Dearing is adequately covered.
"We don't just have (deputies) in one place all the time," he said. "The thing of it is, right now we're in the process of trying to hire more deputies. And at this point, I just don't have a man that I can just put in one place and leave."
He added that a low call volume from the Dearing area doesn't warrant a deputy stationed there 24 hours a day.
"We don't have that much crime in Dearing, but I mean the people in Dearing need to be protected like everybody else," he told The Mirror earlier this year. "We try to have somebody down there as much as possible, but they're all over the county."
Dearing Mayor Ralph Menees has spoken to Sheriff Marshall about police coverage in the city on several occasions, but he's not sure what the immediate solution is.
"I don't know. We'll just go ahead and grin and bare it, tough it out I guess," he said. "I do intend to try to do something about it to see if we can't get better protection."
Mayor Menees is willing to live with the status quo for right now because the alternative, he said, is unfeasible.
"We don't have a municipal police department of any kind. If we did, we'd have to hire, and then we'd have unemployment compensation and insurance and liability," he said.
"Of course we'd then have to send them off to school for training so they'd have arresting powers. Then we'd have to set up a magistrate's court and everything in town. We just don't feel like that's the thing to do right now. ... I just don't think that we could afford it right now."
What Dearing can afford is a volunteer fire department which is currently in place. Mayor Menees said all of the town's fire fighters have been trained as first responders -- which means they can respond to most types of emergencies, including providing basic medical care on some calls.
But with the existing shortage of other emergency and law enforcement personnel, it seems little is likely to change for the south end of McDuffie County.
"We do need additional ambulances, but we do not have personnel available to put them on," Ms. Rogers said, adding that the shortage is a state-wide problem.
Sheriff Marshall also said the scarcity of new law enforcement officers stems from fewer people with clean records. And it is not limited to his department and the Thomson Police Department.
"It's the same thing, not only with Thomson, it's with Richmond County, Columbia and everybody else." he said.
Ms. Rogers said one of the reasons for the shortage of EMTs is the strict requirements enforced by the state of Georgia. She said the classes take nearly as long as becoming a registered nurse. An RN's salary is double that of an EMT, and they work in more favorable conditions, she said.
She also added that potential EMTs need good decision making skills without supervision. They should be emotionally stable, have no felonies, a good driving record and a GED or high school diploma to get into the classes.
"If indeed an individual is interested in being in the EMS field, they have to have a need to help others. If they are looking for lights and sirens, that desire goes out very quickly," Ms. Rogers said.