Tri Community South EMS History

Tri-Community South EMS History

Tri-Community South EMS was established in 1977 as the result of an effort to improve medical care in the communities of Bethel Park, South Park and Upper St. Clair. In 1974, Doctor Clara Jean Ersoz, an Upper St. Clair Township resident who was Medical Director of St. Clair Memorial Hospital, approached Township Manager James Parks about the need to improve the delivery of prehospital medical care and transportation in the township. In 1975, Upper St. Clair contracted with two private sector services in nearby Bridgeville Borough to provide service on a one-month rotation. In 1976, the township applied for a federal grant to fund the effort. Through the efforts of the League of Women Voters in Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair and with the help of the Bethel Park Jaycees, the Municipality of Bethel Park and the Township of South Park offered to join Upper St. Clair in the project. The “joint ambulance service project” involved three private ambulance services. After several months, the municipalities selected one of these services to be the sole provider. An ambulance base at the Bethel Park Public Works complex increased coverage to the area. This solution proved to be less than optimal.

With the support and cooperation of the officials of Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair and South Park, a study commission was formed to investigate options for improving EMS delivery to the communities. After examining the options, this advisory board determined that the best way to insure compliance with the standards that had been set was to have the communities themselves own, operate, and manage the ambulance service. This recommendation was supported by the officials of the communities. An administrative compact was signed under the provisions of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act of 1972, officially bringing Tri-Community South EMS into existence. The system was to be governed by an Administrative Committee comprised of the municipal managers of the communities. Funding was to be provided by user fees, prepaid subscription plans, appropriations from municipal funds, and federal and state grants.

The first order of business for the system was to choose a leader. The committee chose Mary Ann Scott, RN, BSN, who had been associated with EMS since its inception. As the director of what was now named Tri-Community South EMS, Mary Ann undertook the task of forming a budget, developing operating procedures, securing equipment and hiring personnel. The original personnel costs of the system were provided by a grant under the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. CETA grant money provided for 19 full time employees. These employees: one supervisor, nine paramedics and nine EMTs, were not enough. By mid-1978, about 30 volunteers had signed on to fill out the staff. Federal grant money provided funds for equipment. St. Clair Hospital provided medical control, under the direction of Dr. Ersoz. By late December of 1977, everything was in place.

On December 31, 1977 at 11:00 pm, Tri-Community South EMS went into service with two vehicles, providing Basic and Advanced Life Support services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a combination of full-time paramedics, and full-time and volunteer EMT's. Seven weeks later, on February 26, 1978, a third ambulance entered service, and the system operated one ALS unit and two BLS units, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In its first year of operation, TCS answered 2,779 calls.

Changes in call volume and in the health care environment has altered the staffing pattern over the years. The “tiered response” model that used a combination of ALS and BLS ambulances was replaced by an “all ALS” model. In 1985, Tri-Community South began to provide non-emergency transport service. By 1988, this service accounted for about 20 percent of the total call volume. By the 21st Century, changes in reimbursement for non-emergency service reduced this to less than 1 percent of the call volume. In 1994, Tri-Community South began to provide wheelchair van transport service, then, in 1996, as part of South Suburban EMS. Wheelchair van service lasted until 2000.

In October of 2000, Mary Ann Scott retired from the system. Nora Helfrich, RN, EMT-P, who had served as a volunteer, part-time employee, full-time employee, supervisor, and Supervisor of Support Services, was named as the new director. Nora inherited a system that faced declining income because of a significant decrease in insurance company reimbursements, increasing costs because of increases in insurance premiums, and a decreasing pool of volunteers because of the aging of the communities the system serves. Nonetheless, after nineteen years of her leadership, the system remains financially stable, and in 2001 through 2018, operated with a positive ledger balance, requiring no funding from the municipalities’ tax base. In Nora’s first year as director, 2001, TCS answered 6,708 emergency and non-emergency calls, in a population of approximately 68,000 residents.

The “home” of Tri-Community South operations has moved several times over the years. The first ambulance base was in the Bethel Park Public Works complex on Slater Road, in a building that had been built as temporary quarters for the police department during the 1967 construction of the Bethel Park Municipal Building. For the first year, TCS shared space in this building with the Bethel Park sewer department and the Teen Job Bank. In 1979, the other municipal departments vacated the building, and TCS became the sole occupant. Garage space was provided in the public works garage, with the garages about 50 yards from the base. Though far from optimal, this would be the Bethel Park EMS base for the next 19 years.

Tri-Community South also operates from bases in South Park and Upper St. Clair. The South Park base was first occupied on February 26, 1978. It was a garage bay in the police department garages that had been carpeted, with the roll-up door bolted shut, and temporary dividers with doors built to keep exhaust fumes out of the base. The ambulance was kept in the next garage bay. This base was renovated in 1992 as part of the overall renovations to the municipal complex. Permanent walls and doors were installed at this time, and the heating and cooling systems were connected to those of the other occupied areas of the building.

In Upper St. Clair, crews sat on office chairs in the hall of the municipal offices during the daylight hours, and in the reception area of the planning office at night for the first several months. After several moves around the building, in 1982 a space was allocated in a renovated former police department garage. Garage space for the ambulance was in the adjacent garage. This base was moved in 1985 as part of the renovation of the municipal building. The current base is located in the area formerly occupied by the police department administration, and the ambulance is garaged in the area formerly occupied by the 1982 ambulance base. This base includes space for secure medication and equipment storage, lockers, showers, equipped kitchen, emergency power and a room that could be used as sleeping quarters in the event of an incident that requires extended staffing.

The first Tri-Community South business office was located in the Upper St. Clair municipal building in a very cramped office shared with the director of public works and the township forester. In 1979, TCS found space in the County Park on Buffalo Drive. Two large but poorly insulated, poorly heated, and non-air-conditioned rooms on the second floor provided sufficient space but little comfort. With the additions to the Bethel Park Municipal building in 1982, the office moved to better quarters in this new space. Still, the growing volume of business necessitated yet another move.

On June 30, 1997, Tri-Community South celebrated the opening of its new business office and Bethel Park ambulance base in the public works complex in a new building at 2470 Slater Road, about 100 feet from the former base. Modest space was provided for a billing office, reception area, small conference room, offices, staff work space, kitchen, and equipment storage and cleaning areas. The ambulances remained in the public works garages, several dozen yards away. This building was clearly a compromise, since it included half of the office and crew space and none of the garage space the system had requested. There was no space for records storage that would comply with privacy regulations, the crews still needed to hike outside from the base to the garages, the ambulances were being stored three-deep in the garage bay, and support vehicles needed to be stored outside. Beginning in 2001, after taking five years to convince the elected officials of the need for a new facility that could be completed with no tax dollars the system began to search for space outside the public works complex for a new facility.

After an exhaustive search of all available property near the center of the service area, TCS decided to build its new headquarters at 5490 Progress Boulevard, in the Bethel Park Industrial Park. Groundbreaking day was a snowy and cold March 1, 2005. The building was designed by EPM Architecture and the project was managed by Mark Edelmann and EMS Director, Nora Helfrich. The building was completed and occupied in September of 2005, ahead of schedule and under budget. The new facility was dedicated on October 25, 2005. Executive Chefs John Helfrich, (the EMS Director's son) and Jeremy Critchfield of Nemacolin Woodlands donated their time and culinary cuisine for this historic event. Chief Robert Full, Allegheny Count EMS Manager provided the welcome for the dedication.

Tri-Community South has always provided more than ambulance transportation. From its earliest days, the system has been involved in community health care and education.

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation training to the community began in 1978 with classes for police and fire personnel, scheduled community classes, all day marathon classes, private classes for businesses and CPR “house parties”, where instructors teach CPR to small groups in the resident’s own home. Tri-Community South personnel also taught the First Responder course for area fire fighters and citizens.

TCS was a key participant in training and support in the Automated External Defibrillator-Police Provider study of the University of Pittsburgh and the Center for Emergency Medicine, and actively supported the initiative to extend AED training to the public at large through integration with the CPR program. Tri-Community South continues to provide CPR and AED training to other public safety providers and to the general public. In cooperation with the Bethel Park Community Coalition, Tri Community South participates in Operation Heartbeat, an effort of the AHA to increase public awareness of CPR and AED training.

As a Community Training Center for the American Heart Association, TCS continually ranks among the top ten CTCs in Pennsylvania in numbers of people trained annually. In 2003, Tri-Community South was the busiest CTC in Pennsylvania and the second-busiest CTC in the Northern Atlantic region, with 9,213 citizens trained in that year. Since June of 2004, every Tri-Community South employee has been certified as a CPR instructor. Tri-Community South EMS achieved another first in 2003 when it hosted the national rollout of the new American Heart Association Heartsaver First Aid course. The course complements the Heart Association’s existing Heartsaver Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and Automated External Defibrillation (AED) training courses. Tri-Community South was the first training center in the nation to hold instructor training courses for Heart Association regional faculty members.

Tri-Community South received national recognition at the National Center for Early Defibrillation (NCED) Conference of Champions in Washington, DC on October 24, 2003. Tri-Community South earned the Achieving Excellence in Defibrillation award for the best small-community AED program in North America. The NCED was a non-profit information clearinghouse based at the University of Pittsburgh, dedicated to saving lives that would otherwise be lost to sudden cardiac arrest. In 2006, the NCED transformed into the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association (SCAA), with a more comprehensive outlook toward the problem of sudden cardiac arrest. Upper St. Clair resident Dr. Vince Mosesso is the SCAA medical director. Tri-Community South was recognized for its outstanding achievements in community awareness and training, and in its efforts to get Automated Emergency Defibrillators (AEDs) placed throughout Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and South Park. Currently, Tri- Community South’s training center has placed more than 300 AEDs in area municipal facilities, churches, schools, public places and businesses, in addition to those that have been in service in police patrol cars since 1992. Since 2015, Tri-Community South has participated in the American Heart Association's Mission:Lifeline EMS program, recognizing the need for better comprehensive care for those suffering from cardiovascular emergencies. TCS has been awarded Silver, Gold, and Bronze-Plus recognition in the Mission:Lifeline EMS program. 

Tri-Community South’s CPR and AED training programs extend beyond the limits of its primary EMS service area. The CTC encompasses instructors for NIOSH and the U.S. Department of Energy, Consol Energy, the University of Pittsburgh Dental School, Bayer Corporation and other regional agencies. Many of these agencies have placed AEDs in their workplaces. NIOSH has 21 of these, and the US DOE has 18. Consol placed AEDs in its coal mines and with its engineering and exploration crews.

Some community education programs are directed to public and private school students. In 1978, TCS sponsored an elementary school EMS awareness poster contest. Employees and volunteers visited every school in the three communities in order to introduce the students to the concept of EMS. Middle school students received CPR training from TCS instructors until 1982, when schoolteachers were taught by TCS instructor trainers to take over this function. High school students have been able to participate in community leaning programs. In 1983 Tri-Community South launched the junior paramedic program, giving kindergarten children the opportunity to earn a certificate and patch for completing simple emergency awareness and safety projects. TCS has also conducted EMS awareness programs for local scout and church youth groups as well as many local adult groups. The system has produced its own video presentation, and is a regular participant at community days and fire department open houses. TCS has sponsored several community health care events, including blood drives, multiphasic heart screening, the “Jail Bail for Heart”, and community blood pressure screening and multiple senior citizen expos. As part of the Mon River FLEET Initiative, Tri-Community South gives influenza vaccinations throughout the community annually.  

In 1978 TCS developed the “Envelope of Life”, a complete family medical history form that is kept in the resident’s refrigerator to aid emergency personnel in making a rapid and appropriate assessment of an ill or injured family member. The success of this program led to its adoption countywide in 1980. It resurfaced in the communities in September of 2002 through the cooperative efforts of Tri-Community South and the social service ministry of St. Valentine parish in Bethel Park, as the “Vial of Life”, using prescription bottles instead of envelopes to hold the information form.

The system also maintains a high standard of continuing education for its staff. ALS personnel must maintain certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pre-Hospital Trauma Life Support, and Pediatric Advanced Life Support. All personnel must maintain certification in Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC), Basic Vehicle Rescue and Hazardous Materials Operations. Employees are trained in trench rescue, high-angle rescue, water rescue, protective breathing apparatus use and aircraft landing zone site safety. In 2004, some employees attended the new Prehospital Advanced Burn Life Support course. In 2006, all employees and volunteers were trained in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Incident Command and National Incident Management System courses. Tri-Community South was one of the first EMS services in the state to receive the Certificate of Excellence under the Voluntary Ambulance Service Certification Program and maintained VASC until that program was superseded by state licensure. TCS was an early and vocal supporter of minimum standards legislation, which was finally enacted in 1985 as Act 45 and provided for the licensing of EMS services.

In April of 2006, Tri-Community South became the first EMS system in Allegheny County (second in Pennsylvania, 100th in North America) to be granted accreditation by the Commission on the Accreditation of Ambulance Services (CAAS). In a rigorous yearlong process, the operations, financial practices, policies and procedures, vehicles and equipment, and community awareness and responsiveness of the service were examined by CAAS evaluators. In the end, Tri-Community South EMS was given a full three year accreditation, the maximum that CAAS grants, in recognition of its full compliance with the most demanding standards in the EMS industry. This accreditation was renewed in 2009, 2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, and continues today.

In August of 2007 Tri Community South was named Ambulance Service of the Year by the Pennsylvania Emergency Health Services Council (PEHSC). The award was presented to Tri-Community South at the PEHSC annual conference in Lancaster on August 18th. Tri-Community South was recognized for its many accomplishments in 2006 – 2007 and throughout its history. The PEHSC is the official EMS advisory body to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. As an advocate for its diverse member organizations, PEHSC's ultimate purpose is to foster improvements in the quality and delivery of emergency health services throughout the Commonwealth.

Nora Helfrich, Tri-Community South’s director, received an award from the Emergency Medical Service Institute at its annual dinner on November 14, 2008. Nora was recognized for her outstanding contributions to EMS in Southwestern Pennsylvania. EMSI is the Regional EMS Council serving the Southwestern Pennsylvania counties of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland In December of 2013, Tri-Community South received its recognition at the Master level in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s EMS for Children Voluntary Recognition Program. The EMSC program is a multi-level system of recognition for EMS agencies throughout Pennsylvania, with recognition awarded for compliance with basic equipment standards, ChildLine background clearance for all personnel, advanced pediatric education for providers, and community outreach programs. As a result of the inspections required and documentation required, Tri-Community South was awarded recognition at the highest, Master, level. Tri-Community South was among the first twenty EMS agencies in Pennsylvania to be recognized at this level.

Tri-Community South is a training site for field preceptorship of students in the Community College of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh - Center for Emergency Medicine (CEM) paramedic training programs. In 2003, the system first participated in training fourteen paramedic students from the Republic of South Korea as a part of its role as a field training site for the Center for Emergency Medicine. The students were firefighters with the Seoul Fire and Disaster Management Department who traveled to Pittsburgh for paramedic training at the CEM. Their classroom courses were conducted at the CEM’s Oakland campus, and Tri-Community South EMS provided their field training. All fourteen graduated from the program and returned to Seoul to begin providing care. Since then, Tri-Community South is the preferred field preceptorship site for all of the CEM’s South Korean students. The South Korean firefighters are not the only international students trained by Tri- Community South. The system has also trained students from Norway, Qatar, Ireland, Germany, Canada, Nigeria, Argentina, China, Iceland, Australia and Finland, and U.S. students from New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, California, Delaware, Texas and Michigan, and students from across Pennsylvania.

Tri-Community South has responded to assist its neighbors at such incidents as the crashes of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell Township, Beaver County on September 8, 1994 and United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Somerset County on September 11, 2001. Closer to home, TCS assisted in West Mifflin when a devastating microburst struck Kennywood Park on May 31, 2002, in Baldwin and Pittsburgh on June 2, 1998 when a tornado passed through the area, and in Etna on May 30, 1986 when torrential rains caused deadly flash floods along Pine Creek. TCS personnel staffed the evacuation center in Floreffe, Jefferson Borough on January 2, 1988, when 3.9 Million gallons of diesel fuel were spilled from a failed storage tank, and assisted in the evacuation of several McKeesport nursing homes threatened by a hazardous material spill in 1985. Within the service area, major incidents include the 1988 evacuation of the Route 88 corridor in Bethel Park, including the Brightwood Plaza apartments, because of a gasoline leak from a service station, and the 1999 release of pepper spray into the ventilation system at Bethel Park High School. Tri-Community South employees who are members of the federal DMAT team have been deployed to major incidents nationwide, including the hurricane Katrina response in 2005. In every case, Tri-Community South personnel performed admirably.

February of 2010 saw the system’s resources put to fullest use during the snowstorms of that month. During the month, Tri-Community South answered 540 calls, with up to five ambulance crews in service at a time during the worst weather from February 6th to February 10th, plus a supervisor in a response vehicle to assist crews when access and egress was difficult. The system’s staff worked extended hours throughout the emergency. During the peak five days of the back-to-back storms, the staff put in an additional 198 hours of duty to protect the community. By the end of the month, the total had risen to 302 hours.

Tri-Community South’s crews reached every person who called for help at every time throughout the storm. Though the weather conditions extended the response times, a crew was at the scene of most calls within 15 minutes. Tri-Community South remained self-sufficient throughout the emergency. During the first storm, the system responded to 76 calls in 48 hours. Of these, only two calls were turned over to mutual aid services, while Tri-Community South responded to seven requests for mutual aid to other services.

As might be expected, the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a year unlike any other in Tri-Community South history. EMS call volumes decreased by larger percentage (10.8%) than in any prior year. While call volume was down, the average call severity was up, as people waited longer to call for help, until they were seriously ill. While the system saw few COVID-19 patients during the first nine months of the pandemic, in December, such calls were a routine occurrence. The system’s major focus in 2020 was, of course, pandemic preparedness. Beginning in late March, TCS was scouring all available sources for personal protective equipment (PPE) for its staff, and instituted a rigorous cleaning and disinfecting procedure for its vehicles and equipment.  EMS Week Activities in May were canceled. The EMS bases were closed to visitors. All staff members must have temperatures checked at the beginning of each work shift, and must be masked at all times while on duty. A higher level of protection, with N-95 masks, gloves, and eye protection, is required during all patient contacts, with gowns and face shields required for contact with known or suspected COVID-19 patients. The public efforts to “flatten the curve” proved successful, and by the time the number of infected patients increased late in the year, sufficient, though certainly not ample, PPE supplies were in stock. In late December the first vaccines for EMS providers were available, and in partnership with St. Clair Hospital, TCS employees were eligible to get the first doses of the vaccine.

At a glance:

Service Area: 33 Square Miles in suburban Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, comprising three municipal civil divisions: the Municipality of Bethel Park, the Township of South Park and the Township of Upper St. Clair. Each municipality has a separate school district. The service area includes a large Allegheny County park (South Park) with a wave pool, ice rink, skateboard park, BMX track, and the county fairgrounds; two major regional shopping malls (South Hills Village and Village Square); four skilled nursing facilities; an ever-increasing number of assisted living facilities and senior residential communities; and many physicians’ offices, outpatient clinics, two urgent care centers and multiple outpatient surgery centers. Tri-Community South provides EMS coverage for the evacuation site for the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant for radiological events.

24/7 EMS hours of operation. | Business hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.