Western Chester County set to lose primary Advanced Life Support service with Tower’s exodus

PARKESBURG — The summer calendar is swiftly approaching September 1.

Western Chester County is preparing to lose primary life saving medical coverage by the end of August.

Tower Health is scheduled to pull its Medic 93 Advanced Life Support unit from the Keystone station in Parkesburg and units presently based at two Caln Township locations to serve the region’s Coatesville and Brandywine communities.

Once these units officially depart from these Western Chester County towns, the primary Advanced Life Support coverage they were providing to Caln, Coatesville City, South Coatesville, Parkesburg, Modena, South Coatesville, West Brandywine, East Brandywine, Newlin and West Bradford disappears.

Additionally, Medic 93 currently provides service to Sadsbury, West Sadsbury, Atglen, Highland.

Finally, presently, Medic 93 provides ALS service in Lancaster County to the communities of Christiana Borough and Sadsbury Township.

In total, upon Tower’s departure from Western Chester County, 14 towns in Chester County and two towns in Lancaster County will lose Medic 93’s coverage of their longstanding Advanced Life Support units in the area.

“There are no immediate solutions other than relying on the other ALS units in the area,” said state Rep. Dan Williams, D-74th, of Sadsbury.

“Municipal officials should be doing all they can to strengthen and expand those units including financial support — even if it means imposing a local emergency services tax to do so,” Williams said.

Noteworthy, Newlin is also part of the Kennett Fire and Emergency Management Services Regional Commission, with an Advanced Life Support (ALS) unit based at the Longwood Fire Company. Presently the Kennett region has two ALS ambulances serving six municipalities, home to 31,000 residents.

An estimated 70,000 people live within the 14 Chester County towns presently served by Tower Health’s Tower Direct Medic 93 units. More than 3,000 people live in Parkesburg and more than 13,000 live in the City of Coatesville.

Westwood Fire Company Chief John Sly address fellow first responders and municipal government leaders gathered in Parkesburg on July 27 to address the impact of Tower’s decision to pull three Advanced Life Support units from Western Chester County. (JEN SAMUEL — DAILY LOCAL NEWS)

When Tower pulls these ALS units from the county’s western communities, first responders across Chester County are calling the measure the catalyst of a “crisis.”

Further, “there is currently a funding shortage for most emergency response agencies which must change. I don’t think this is more apparent anywhere than it is when we look at the loss of Advanced Life Support services,” said Williams.

“Chester County has a proud tradition of top-tier emergency services,” said Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell last week. “The vacuum that the loss of Tower Health has brought, I believe, will allow us to backfill with better, local ALS providers. It won’t be easy or quick, but we have the capacity and the will as a community to meet the challenge.”

By the end of the month, Tower Health will be relocating its Advanced Life Support operations elsewhere to Elverson and Honey Brook.

When that happens, Westwood Fire Company EMS and possibly Minquas Fire Company in Downingtown will be answering emergency medical calls to the communities previously served by Tower.

It is anticipated that Medic 94, based in Penn Township in Southern Chester County, will also begin answering emergency calls in Parkesburg and elsewhere in the county’s western region.

In fact, due to staff shortages already underway impacting first responders across Pennsylvania, units in Chesco are already answering neighboring calls if they are the only teams available for dispatch when an emergency calls. This includes fire and emergency medical service crews.

Furthermore, a fire company in Downingtown doesn’t stay put if they are the only one available at a moment’s notice to respond to an explosion in Sadsbury. Emergency responders answer the call when needed wherever they are. Yet that can also be toiling, with more time spent away from family than ever before especially considering Tower’s decision to close two flagship hospitals in the region, and furthermore by pulling a trio of Advanced Life Support units from Parkesburg and Caln.

Chuck Freese is the emergency management coordinator for Southern Chester County.

“The 911 Center will consistently reposition available medic units at all times — which they’ve been doing even today — to try and keep ALS units in as close proximity as possible to the population for best response,” Freese said. “This may even include calling in medics from surrounding counties for responses.”

Now until Sept. 1, Tower Health’s Tower Direct has operated three ALS units in Western Chester County: MICU 93, which operates still out of the “permanently closed” Brandywine Hospital in Caln, Medic 393 stationed at the Coatesville Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Caln, and Medic 293 at Keystone Valley Fire Department in Parkesburg, pictured shortly after sunset earlier this summer. In July, Parkesburg Mayor attends a meeting to address the “crisis.” (JEN SAMUEL — DAILY LOCAL NEWS)

For instance, on July 26, due all nearby first responding units already responding to calls elsewhere, Keystone Valley Fire Department answered an emergency call in Franklin Township, which borders Maryland near the Mason-Dixon Line with Delaware whereas Parkesburg neighbors Lancaster County.

In Southern Chester County, Medic 94 in Penn Township provides primary ALS services across 220-square miles for 75,000 residents. Towns covered include Avondale, East Nottingham, Elk, Franklin, London Britain, Londonderry, London Grove, Lower Oxford, New Garden, New London, Oxford, Penn, Upper Oxford, West Grove, West Fallowfield, West Marlborough, West Nottingham and Highland.

Freese said for residents and municipal governments, funding first responders equates to supporting the “professional emergency responses that may one day save their life or the lives of their loved ones,” Freese said.

He said that municipal leaders know already that Basic Life Support and Advanced Life Support services cost money but save lives.

“The cost of our fire and EMS services are not always the first thing to come to mind when planning family budgets,” Freese said.

Yet, repeatedly, “when the need arises and we are fortunate to have them respond, we never forget they were there for us.”

Tower Health’s decision to remove Medic 93 from areas previously served by Brandywine and Jennersville Regional hospitals will add additional burdens to emergency medical service units — from staffing shortages to increasingly dramatic financial strains compounded by this year’s near-double-digit inflation spike in energy expenses, essential equipment, and even basic supplies.

ChristianaCare purchased Jennersville Regional Hospital, plus 24 adjacent acres and two office buildings, for $8 million from Tower Health in June. The hospital will reopen in the future however remains closed presently. This means Medic 94 must drive further than ever to bring people to other hospitals for emergency care.

And that puts an additional toll on first responders, many men and women who are often forced to work multiple jobs just to get by in Chester County, as previously reported.

Chief Brian Gathercole of the Keystone Valley Fire Department holds an informational session on Emergency Medical Services and the need for Advanced Life Support on July 27 at Parkesburg Point on Main Street. (JEN SAMUEL ??Chief Brian Gathercole of the Keystone Valley Fire Department holds an informational session on Emergency Medical Services and the need for Advanced Life Support on July 27 at Parkesburg Point on Main Street. (JEN SAMUEL — DAILY LOCAL NEWS)

Still, Chester County is the highest income-earning county in Pennsylvania. According to the U.S. Census Bureau,  538,649 people live here.

“All municipalities need to communicate and work together for a solution,” said Fire Chief Brian Gathercole of the Keystone Valley Fire Department in Parkesburg.

“This did not happen overnight,” Gathercole said. “Everyone is adapting to the change and continuing to provide the best service and care possible.

“Unfortunately, Tower Health has not given enough advance notification to provide for a seamless transition,” said State Sen.  Carolyn Comitta, D-19th, of West Chester.

Brandywine Hospital, once serving the City of Coatesville and the entire western region of Chester County, is closed. Tower Health shut down the facility on January 31. Jennersville was shut down back on December 31, 2021.

Comitta said that there is a collective effort working to find a new owner and operator for Brandywine Hospital.

As for the impending departure of Medic 93 units from Coatesville, Caln and Parkesburg, “I continue to work with our partners at the county and our state legislative delegation to help expedite the process of establishing a new ALS service provider,”Comitta said.

“Still, to many residents, this feels like our communities are being abandoned for a third time,” Comitta said.

Tower’s decision to close Jennersville and Brandywine earlier this year in addition to the immediate closure of three Medic 93 units from Chester County’s western landscape is one that first responders say is causing a “crisis.”

“This is a decision that we have not taken lightly, but it is necessary as a result of the closure of the Brandywine and Jennersville hospitals,” said Dr. Charles Barbera, senior vice president of Tower Health and president of Reading Hospital, in a released statement issued on June 7 on the decision to pull Medic 93 units from Western Chester County.

Tower is based in Reading, which is part of Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District. The 6th District includes all of Chester County.

“It is my hope that the budget shortfalls that our ALS providers are experiencing are appropriately addressed by all involved municipalities and by the Pennsylvania Department of Health,” said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of Easttown.

“Municipalities and EMS agencies need to strengthen their relationships and collaborate to ensure their areas are adequately covered and funded to provide both basic life support and advanced life support services,” said Charles Brogan IV. He is the president of the Chester County EMS Council, Inc.

In the 1970s, there were an estimated 300,000 active firefighters in Pennsylvania, according to the Office of the State Fire Commissioner in Harrisburg. Half-a-century later, with the cost of living skyrocketing, that number has been reduced by 90 percent, down to approximately 30,000 volunteer first responders serving the entire Commonwealth.

And like elsewhere in the state, the number of volunteer firefighters are down in Chester County, as previously reported.

To offset this decline, the numbers of career firefighters have increased, said Gerald DiNunzio Jr., president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association.

“Many career firefighters work second and third jobs to make ends meet, and volunteers have less time to volunteer because they also work more than one job,” DiNunzio said.

And while volunteers are also part of emergency medical teams able to provide basic life support, units with Advanced Life Support are typically paid because they must be available full-time on call especially during the working hours of 9 to 5 on weekdays.

Serving the 74th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Williams said that optimally there would have been a chance to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) service from local EMS units already in the area but given the time of notice provided by Tower Health in June of its decision to move these units to northern parts of Chester County this remains impossible.

“ALS EMTs require one full year of training as opposed to the six months required by Basic Life Support (BLS),” Williams said. “ALS vehicles require a higher level of build and additional supplies. Part of the problem here is that the three-month notice provided does not allow for the additional training — even if personnel were ready to do this.”

Williams added, “The larger issue is the added costs to already financially strained local EMS teams. I’m working on legislation to establish grants for upgrades like this but there is currently nothing in place and establishing new grants will likely be a long process.”

Williams said he doesn’t feel that any entity should be told how to handle their business but in cases of basic necessities like healthcare, there should be restrictive guidelines to prevent lifesaving services like these from simply pulling up stakes and leaving.

Williams and Comitta have recently introduced legislation in their respective chambers to combat what’s happened in Chester County because of Tower Health. Among several proposals, Williams has introduced a measure to provide grant funds for first responders. And in the State Senate, Comitta is working to ensure that the timeframe in which a hospital can depart from a community increases dramatically as well as to enact a mandate requiring that healthcare take part in public hearings as part of the process moving forward.

“The way Tower Direct handled moving these units and the way Tower Health closed the two hospitals have added many difficulties to an already precarious healthcare environment here in Western Chester County,” Williams said. “The currently required short timelines to give notice to the community are part of the problem because they don’t allow for solutions to be implemented before the services leave.”

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