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Guest Opinion: Why do two ambulances respond on emergency calls?

Why does Fire District No. 5 send more than one ambulance to calls?

That is the main question I have been asked since joining the Fire District as the Fire Chief back in April of 2011 and I hope after reading this, you will understand why we do this currently.

But before we get into the reasons, I feel it is critical that you know some general facts about the fire district. Fire District No. 5 is the largest fire district in Grays Harbor County with a response area of more than 300-plus square miles and we respond to almost six calls for service per day — everything from basic life support and advanced life support, in addition to inter-facility transports from one hospital to another hospital for more advanced care. We staff two 24-hour firefighter/paramedics, along with two on-duty volunteers each day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.

In addition to the on-duty staffing; we do have some traditional (respond from home) volunteers that respond when the tones go off, but those are limited for one reason or another. Frankly, we cover a very large area and are busy on a regular basis with a limited staff to respond. The main reason for having two crews/ambulances respond is SAFETY — safety of not just the responders but also safety to the person calling on us for help. It takes normally three to four responders to safely move a patient as a minimum to limit any additional harm to the patient, but let’s not forget the responders.

Over the last few years, the fire service has seen an alarming number of injuries to the responders by not having an adequate number of on-scene personnel to help move patients and we try to do more with less and that takes a toll sometimes at the cost of injuries. In the days of old, we would see six to eight responders at each and every call and that provided enough hands and backs to limit the possibility of doing more harm than good but, unfortunately, we don’t see those kinds of responder numbers these days and have to do something different now and still provide the safest care to all that we can.

Not long ago, I got to see or, should I say, feel firsthand what not having enough personnel on scene feels like. As the three of us went to lift a patient on a gurney, my lower back gave way and caused me to have a back injury that took me out of service for a few weeks.

Thank goodness we didn’t drop the patient and cause more injury to them. Some communities you may see the local fire department respond with a fire engine along with the ambulance so there is enough personnel on scene to do what is needed. Currently, the cities of Elma and McCleary fire departments are not dispatched to help on EMS calls unless it is a lift assist only, or we get on scene and then request them to respond.

There is a need to have more personnel on the scene because we do not know if anyone else will respond. Thee potential of long travel times for calls within the response area also drives the need to respond to EMS calls with two ambulances. I have also been asked why not one ambulance and one fire engine? Well, that’s because we have many multiple calls happen while we are responding or are on scene already and if we had to turn around and drive all the way back to the station to get the ambulance, it would delay getting the ambulance to the other location, and I am sure you have all heard the term “Time is Life.” The longer it takes for us to get on scene, the less likely a positive outcome is to happen.

Grays Harbor Fire District No. 5 is always evaluating the services we are providing and trying to find better ways of providing the services at the most cost effective way possible. We have started sending only one ambulance to some requests that don’t sound too serious in nature, and if they get on scene and need more help then request that. The negative to doing this all the time is the wait time for more help to get there. We are also looking at how we staff each day and working on the possibility of increasing the volunteer on-shift staffing along with working with the cities’ fire departments and seeing if they can help by responding to the scene instead of waiting until we get there first and helping.

Fire Chief Dan Prater has made a career as a firefighter, having served as fire chief previously in Fire District No. 2 and the city of Westport. Fire District No. 5 currently has a bond measure on the ballots requesting voters approve funds for two new ambulances.