Emergency Medical Service at Risk in Lincoln County

by Carey Guhlke-Falk, Communications Director,
Lincoln Hospital and Clinics

You hear the sirens and see the lights of an ambulance and you know to pull your car over to the side of the road. You might even think about the person who needs that emergency service and what tragedy could have happened. But, do you consider the people driving the ambulance or providing care to the patient?


A few short minutes before you pulled your car over, the volunteer Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) were at their regular jobs as farmers, office workers, county workers, caregivers, and a multitude of other professions when their pagers went off. They stopped everything they were doing in that moment and headed straight for the ambulance. Someone in their community was in need and they were there to answer the call.


This is a reality for many Emergency Medical Service (EMS) crews across Lincoln County every day; they rely on volunteer EMTs to staff crews who respond to the emergency medical needs of the county. However, the burden of responding to medical emergencies in a moment’s notice is even greater with the drastic shortage of EMT volunteers.


“The fact of the matter is that people in Lincoln County need this service,” said Eric Cassidy, Lincoln Hospital’s EMS Coordinator. “It’s really not an option for our communities to operate without EMS.”


Recruiting and Staffing is difficult

For most Lincoln County communities, EMS is provided by volunteers in conjunction with the local fire district. Volunteers are paid a stipend only while they are responding to an emergency call and are “on-call” or stand-by 24-7 when they are within their community’s service area. For Davenport and Odessa, EMS is provided as a community service through the hospitals. EMTs are scheduled in shifts and are paid a stand-by stipend while “on-call” and regular wages while they are responding to a call.


Regardless, EMTs are hard to come by in Lincoln County.


“There’s nothing like helping your neighbors in their greatest time of need,” said Mike Piper from the seat of his combine. “It’s challenging and it’s rewarding to be an EMT.” 


Mike Piper, a 49-year-old Davenport farmer, has been an EMT for 11 years and has seen many volunteers come and go. “It’s a community service, but it’s also what I love to do – helping people. But, we need more volunteers directly from our communities,” he said referring to the volunteers at Lincoln Hospital who come from Spokane hoping to get working experience so they can move on to full-time EMT work for agencies like American Medical Response (AMR). This means there is constant turn-over and continual training, which, is costly for the local agencies. “We have a handful of consistent community volunteers who have been with us for a long time, but a majority of our crew is temporary,” said Cassidy.  “That’s just not sustainable.”


For communities like Harrington, the volunteer shortage isn’t a matter of turnover, but community involvement. Harrington’s 3-member crew includes long-time residents Dusty Oestreich, Brandon Larmer, and Scott McGowen who have all been on the crew for at least 7 years- McGowen for over twenty. That means 24-7 emergency medical coverage is up to three individuals in the community.  With a state requirement to have at least two EMTs on each ambulance, they don’t have much room for schedule conflicts. “The shortage doesn’t just affect our ability to provide immediate care for patients, but also the families of our volunteers,” Cassidy said. “When you’re responding to every call, that interrupts a lot of family time. I think that’s why we have a lot of people choose not to volunteer – they think they would be carrying a lot of the schedule load.”


Co-dependent Agencies

However, the EMS bond is strong throughout the county and community agencies go out of their way to support each other. Recently, a Reardan EMT helped the Lincoln Hospital crew when there wasn’t a second EMT available to drive the ambulance for a transport to a Spokane hospital. Similar aid happens in Wilbur. According to Cassidy, when Wilbur is short-staffed or unable to respond, Creston picks up the call. And the incredible crew in Harrington- despite their small numbers and despite them all being farmers- have covered for other agencies as well. “Ultimately, we do this for people in need – not just for our own communities. Agencies support and rely on each other – Lincoln County at least has that going for them.”


Funding is part of the problem

Current funding for EMS comes from the local tax district for communities whose agencies are not run through the local hospital district. For the hospital districts, there is no reimbursement for providing EMS, which, means the programs either break even or run a deficit. “Ideally, we would have the funding to staff some full-time positions that would be responsible for recruiting volunteers and who would be available on a full-time basis to take the call,” Cassidy said. “Unfortunately, EMS is not a money-making endeavor. It is, however, a necessary endeavor. Our communities rely on this service daily.”


For Davenport, if Lincoln Hospital were unable to sustain its EMS program due to the staffing shortage, there would be nobody to respond to emergency medical calls. “AMR and other ambulance agencies have no obligation to come from Spokane to transport or respond to calls,” said Jennifer Larmer, Lincoln Hospital’s Chief Clinical Officer. “We are currently operating our EMS as a community service because it is needed – there is no financial benefit to the district for doing so.”


Davenport’s crew, specifically, has gone above and beyond their designated responsibilities to provide EMS for the county. They provide EMT presence and education at community events without charge. In the past year, according to Cassidy, the crew has provided service and outreach to the Pioneer Plod, junior rodeos, the Lincoln County Fair & Rodeo, football games, preschools, Boy Scouts, sports tournaments, and mock crashes for senior projects. They also are often asked to respond to calls outside their 650-square-mile service area. He said this spreads their already thin crew out even further, but also said it is part of the service they provide to the community.


Community involvement is a solution

Ask any EMS volunteer and they will tell you that more involvement from the communities they serve is a solution to this problem – along with better funding.  “Going through the EMT course is a commitment, but those are skills can be used for a lifetime,” Cassidy said. “Even if you have a full-time job, your service on the ambulance crew can work around that.” Cassidy said the biggest need his crew has is coverage for nights and weekends. EMTs are asked to commit to ten shifts a month and attend one meeting/training each month.


An EMT training course is available for community members who are 18 years of age and older and who are interested in getting involved. The class is taught by Doug Bonstrom at the Reardan Fire Station and costs $170.00. More information is available by calling Eric Cassidy at 509-725-7101 or Doug Bonstrom at 509-796-2045.