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As Horry County grows, emergency services strain to meet demand

The Sun News logo The Sun News 6/22/2021 J. Dale Shoemaker, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

Jun. 21—Early Saturday morning, when Wanda Hughes and her husband were leaving Cherry Grove and driving home to Conway, they turned onto Sea Mountain Highway and saw something strange on the side of the road.

At first, Hughes said, she thought it was a pile of garbage bags.

No, her husband said, it was a person.

The man, later identified as 32-year-old Pennsylvania native Kevin Burdick, was lying there, half on the grass, half on the road. He looked hurt, and the Hughes pulled over. Burdick could barely speak above a whisper and said he was hit by a car and fell into a swampy ravine next to the road. He crawled back up to the road to seek help, Hughes said, water and mud dripping off of him.

Hughes said she then called 911 to get help for Burdick, who said he was hit as he was walking to work at a nearby restaurant. But a 911 operator never picked up, Hughes said. Another person who stopped to help also tried calling 911 and couldn't get an answer, she said.

"This man ... he was bruised, I'm not sure if his leg was broken, he could have been dead," Hughes said. "But they didn't answer me."

Eventually, the other person who stopped called a friend and North Myrtle Beach Police eventually arrived. But Hughes was unnerved that the calls to 911 didn't produce any results.

Though Burdick eventually received help — North Myrtle Beach police took him to Grand Strand Medical Center later that morning — the incident appears to illustrate a larger problem in Horry County: Because the county has grown so much in recent years, emergency services like 911 are now strained.

"This is ridiculous that you call 911 in an emergency situation and never get an answer," Hughes wrote in a Facebook post later on Saturday. "I feel that should be a one-time call and then they should call whatever station is nearest you for assistance."

It's a problem that county officials have said they're well aware of. In a May meeting of County Council's public safety committee, both Randy Webster, the county's assistant administrator for public safety and Renee Hardwick, the 911 director, told council members that the county needed more people to field 911 calls because there currently wasn't enough staff.

Horry County, Webster said, "is exponentially growing so call volumes continue to increase ... it's too much for us to handle. We've stretched the rubber band as far as we can and we really need to see some additional resources."

Hardwick added that because 911 call-takers are faced with such a high volume of calls, some on her staff burn out and leave their jobs.

"We're working our people to death over there and that's one reason they're leaving is they're tired," she told council members.

Part of the reason for delays in emergency response is the fact that one agency — the Horry County 911 communications division — is responsible for fielding and dispatching a county's worth of emergency calls. Even callers in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach — cities that dispatch their own forces to emergencies — are routed through the county before they reach the city dispatcher.

"Essentially, every call to 911 will go to the County first. They will gather information and, if the call is in North Myrtle Beach's jurisdiction (for police or fire), they will transfer the call to North Myrtle Beach dispatch," Pat Dowling, a North Myrtle Beach spokesperson, said. "If the 911 call is a medical call or a vehicle accident involving injuries, Horry County alerts us by a pager which is located in dispatch."

Over the last few years, the Horry County 911 dispatchers have received more than 230,000 calls a year. In 2017, dispatchers fielded more than 235,000 calls. By 2019, dispatchers fielded 243,000 calls that they sent emergency responders to. In 2020, that figure jumped 267,000 calls dispatched, and this year the county expects to dispatch nearly 300,000 calls.

That uptick in calls has come as the number of dispatchers has remained steady, between 57 and 59 in recent years.

Over the same period of time, the county has added more than 20,000 new residents according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It's not clear what specifically went wrong on Saturday that caused Hughes and others to have difficultly reaching emergency responders. Kelly Moore, a county spokesperson, said county officials were looking into the matter. Hughes said Monday that she spoke with a supervisor in the county's 911 division who suggested a technical issue may have caused the problem.

Still, delays in emergency response have been a problem years in the making. The county has a goal of responding to 88% of 911 calls within 10 seconds. The most recent figures available show the 911 dispatch center is more than 20% off that target.

As a way to solve that problem, the Horry County Council approved funding in next year's budget for 20 additional 911 dispatchers, to be hired in the coming months. County Council members have said the rapid growth has caused them to fall "behind the eight ball" on providing public safety services, and that they're working to catch up as more and more people continue to move to the region.

Other public safety officials have said their departments face short staffs, too, meaning that when an event occurs that requires a significant police and emergency response, the agencies are stretched so thin they may not be able to respond elsewhere. That was a concern Joseph Hill, the county police chief, raised to council members after a man considered to be an "active shooter" shot and injured a person in April. Joseph Tanner, the head of Horry County Fire/Rescue, concurred.

"When you call 911 you don't want to be waiting for an ambulance. You don't want to wait for a fire truck, and you sure don't want to wait for a police officer, and that's kind of where we are right now," he said in May. "We've got to be able to address the call volumes that we have right now."

Though the county is working to remedy the issues with emergency response, residents like Hughes have said it's a frustrating situation, especially in the heat of an emergency. A North Myrtle Beach police officer wrote in a report that Burdick, the man who was struck, was hit by a white pickup truck, but that Burdick wasn't able to read the license plate.

"I know they're short staffed," Hughes said. "I was just disappointed and I was aggravated."

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