By Christina Ulrich
Over the past couple of months, it seems almost overwhelming how many disasters struck in just a short time. Massive earthquakes in Mexico, catastrophic storms from the Florida Keys all the way up the Gulf Coast, school shootings, and concert shootings… Whether thousands of miles away (like Puerto Rico) or local (like Freeman High School), disasters affect all of us. They can happen anywhere at any time.
When we see and hear these events unfold on the news or social media, it makes many of us feel two things: 1.) compassion, empathy, and helplessness for those people closely affected, and 2.) gratitude that we live in a small part of a big world not threatened by major earthquakes and catastrophic hurricanes. We feel drawn to these stories, yet detached from what survivors have to endure.
Now let me scale it down to our small part of this big world. I have lived in Eastern Washington for about seven years. I have witnessed or experienced wildfire danger in the summer, some flooding in the spring, and the occasional power outage in the winter. Nothing personally disastrous. Certainly, nothing compared to what my step-daughter experienced in Puerto Rico (with whom I lost contact for weeks). Fortunately, she is safe in Florida now, but the whole event really put my own sense of safety and security into perspective. It made me wonder how emergency response units handled the sheer numbers of people in need? Certainly, they must have felt outnumbered by those needing assistance compared to those trained and able to assist. What would happen if we, as individuals, families, and communities, experienced a widescale emergency? What if there were not enough emergency responders to accommodate needs?
Currently, there are not enough. In Lincoln County, only a handful of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) are available, per service area, at any given time. There are two main reasons for this problem: lack of funding and lack of volunteers.
In rural communities, like ours, revenue often runs low for Emergency Medical Services (EMS). EMS funding comes from different sources based on location within the county. According to Eric Cassidy, Lincoln Hospital EMS Coordinator, funds come from fire tax levies, city-based taxes, or a hospital operating budget. Because Davenport is a hospital district, the EMS program is provided through Lincoln Hospital. The hospital is not reimbursed for providing this service, therefore its budget will typically “break even or run on a deficit,” according to Carey Guhlke, Communications Director at Lincoln Hospital (“EMS at Risk in Lincoln County,” Huckleberry Press, September 2017).
“A potential solution,” Guhlke stated, “would be for the public to support EMS through specific funding from the county.” EMS-specific funding, Guhlke and Cassidy agree, could be raised through an EMS tax levy. This levy would “ensure this service is always provided” said Guhlke, and “after a couple of years of taxes in the coffer, agencies in need could have the option hiring part time or full-time staff,” Cassidy added.
Before the funding issue is resolved, there continues to be the problem of the “drastic shortage of EMT volunteers,” stated Guhlke. “Getting the word out about the importance of having EMS in our communities will help – I think the service is sometimes taken for granted as something that will always be there when that’s not the case.” Currently, local EMS staff and volunteers are sparse, as they are sometimes required to operate outside their 650 square mile service area. More community involvement and volunteerism is desperately needed.
Fortunately in Lincoln County, like many rural counties, neighboring EMS providers share “mutual aid agreements,” said Cassidy. “Should there be a large event or a neighboring agency is unable to respond, mutual aid is activated and the next closest agency to the call is activated to respond.” However, borrowing nearby EMS services creates a temporary shortage of emergency services in that agency’s area, emphasizing the need for more volunteers all across Lincoln County.
“Lincoln Hospital has provided some extra benefits for EMTs like reimbursement of training costs, benefits for EMTs who take 2 or more shifts per week (at least 24 hrs on call), and on-site housing” (for those who live outside the required response time distance), stated Guhlke. When they are on-call, they are also offered stand-by pay. ”Not every agency can provide these kinds of benefits, but even still, we are having a hard time recruiting enough EMTs.”
Community involvement, in both funding and volunteering, is an absolute necessity all over Lincoln County. Funding and volunteers provide more EMTs in areas they are needed. Abundantly staffed Emergency Medical Service programs ensure safe and secure communities.
If interested individuals missed the September class, and are looking forward to developing the satisfying and rewarding skills of an Emergency Medical Technician, there will be another EMT class ( 160-180 hours) and an EMR class (80 hours) in January. Contact Doug Bonstrom at 509-796-2045 to get more information on the class or to sign up.