Keeping the Community in Community Service
After19 years, Heartland EMS stays true to its homegrown roots
W.J. Cheek, or “Bill,” as he’s known to everyone he meets, is in the ambulance business.
But after interacting with him for no more than five minutes, it becomes clear that the passion he feels for both his customers – and the communities that he serves – is authentic enough that it would translate well to whatever occupational endeavor he found himself involved in.
“It’s been our mindset to be a part of the community since day one,” he says, now 19 years and a few days into ownership of Heartland EMS, which went live on March 1, 1995. “That’s what we know. We’re invested in these places and the people who live there rely on that. We staff from within the counties we serve, so it’s home to our employees. They’re taking care of family and home.
“We’re a private company, but we want to demonstrate that we’re there for people.”
That mission has been accomplished through a series of incremental steps since the start date.
Heartland began when Cheek was awarded a contract to provide EMS service to Bleckley County, a jurisdiction of 12,000 residents that’s about 40 miles southeast of Macon and home to a strip of an interstate highway whose full expanse stretches from Macon to Savannah.
Recognizing that one county’s 911 service wasn’t enough to sustain a business, Cheek branched out with other services, initially working with the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin – about 35 miles northeast of Cochran – before gaining another 911 contract to serve Wilkinson County, which borders Bleckley on the north and is home to another 10,000 people.
Another 911 contract – this time in Wheeler County – followed, and subsequently business was augmented as Cheek entered agreements to provide non-911 support services to other adjacent counties, and it added another big client when he was introduced to decision-makers at Southeast Georgia Health System, a sprawling healthcare provider whose territory extends from its headquarters in Brunswick across a six-county swath in southeast Georgia.
At its present level of service, Heartland includes its Cochran headquarters and seven other dispatch centers and supports a staff that’s swelled to 140 full- and part-time employees and includes 25 distinct squads that can be dispatched between south Macon and the Florida state line.
“When we started out in Bleckley,” Cheek says, “my wife and I were the corporate office and we had two squads. As we added projects, we had to add the infrastructure to support them, so the company grew naturally as the time passed. The more we worked with neighboring counties, the more projects became available to us and we took them on as we got bigger.”
The three counties to which Heartland provides 911 service boast a combined population of 30,000, and Cheek says the annual call volume to which the company responds is near 10,000. Thirty-five percent of those calls are 911 situations, while the remainder are transports and other non-emergencies, including moving VA patients to such far-flung places as the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and Charleston, S.C.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, it also worked with patients as far away as Louisiana.
“That’s the business we’re in,” Cheek says. “We go where we’re needed.”
And, as mentioned previously, the commitment goes beyond the mechanics of the job.
Heartland is a member of the chambers of commerce in all the counties in which it operates, as well as the statewide chamber. It was recently named “Business of the Year” by the Cochran-Bleckley organization and both sponsors and provides medical backup for events including the Southeast Georgia Health System Bridge Run on the Sidney Lanier Bridge in Brunswick – which was deemed the “toughest 5K in Georgia by the U.S. Track and Field Association.
“We’re coming up on 20 years and we’re very entrenched,” Cheek says. “I couldn’t tell you everywhere we go and all the events we’re a part of. There are a lot, and we love what we do.”
The community commitment sometimes necessitates corporate expense, but it’s a reality Cheek says he suffers gladly because of the importance of the work the company does.
Heartland was one of the first EMS providers to go all-in on GPS systems for its vehicle fleet, which enabled it to boost efficiency with an increased ability to reallocate personnel resources on the fly. All vehicles are also equipped with WiFi hotspots and the company as a whole is moving toward entirely paperless recordkeeping with the advent of tablet computers and smartphones.
“One of the things we are faced with is a geographical challenge because of our footprint,” Cheek says. “We needed the technology to be able to track our squads and redeploy them, so now when we get a call we can tell where the nearest one is and how soon it can get where it’s needed. There were significant investments and there’s been a learning process, but it was a necessity.”
Meanwhile, going forward, the learning curve will stay just as steep.
Cheek describes the industry as one “in a little bit of turmoil” thanks to changes mandated by the Affordable Care Act, which, among other things, will require that companies in the EMS business change their approaches from one of reactive care-giver to proactive preventative provider.
“It comes down to the economics of it all,” he says. “If the pre-hospital providers are going to be more involved in preventative care, it’s going to be a huge challenge. We’re being encouraged to prepare for it, but the infrastructure is not in place. It’s an increased scope of practice and not all of the decisions that are going to be needed have been made yet, so there’s a lot of uncertainty out there.”
But not, he says, when it comes to where the organizational emphasis will remain.
“We’ve been long, stable providers in our communities, and that stands us apart from the flashier operations,” he says. “We’re tried and true community players.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Heartland EMS
WHAT: Privatemedical ambulance company providing services from emergency care to non-urgent transportation
WHERE: Headquarters in Cochran, Ga.; dispatch centers in seven locations