Volunteer’s perspective on ambulance service

Guest Commentary
By: 
Riley Hutchens
NREMT (National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians)

I write in response to your article about the County-Wide EMS system. 
I hope that the citizens will think twice about this being a good idea. We know that our EMS system is troubled. This is not a volunteer problem—this is a City of Laurel problem. The City knew several years ago that our EMS system was on the verge of failure and recklessly allowed the problem to continue. We knew in the summer of 2015 that we were in dire need of a paid personnel system. We have pleaded time, and time again only to be told there was no money. People in our community have lost their lives to the City’s irresponsible expectation that we could still cover the city on solely a volunteer service in the year 2017. We are fast approaching 1,000 calls per year (which would be more if we could answer all of them). Perhaps the city should cease foolish spending elsewhere, such as raises for employees who do not deserve them. Instead of the Chief Administrative Officer, the Mayor, and the council stepping up and taking responsibility for their failure, they will continue to blame this broken system on the volunteers who give so much to our community as it is.
I’ve got to hand it to Brad Shoemaker. We have seen several subtle improvements in our County’s emergency response system. However, I don’t quite think Brad is living in reality in regards to this particular issue. The expectation that one ambulance is going to adequately serve the entire City of Laurel, Blue Creek and Broadview is foolish. This system would work in the eastern half of the county where medical calls are days between the next. Laurel alone receives an average of three calls per day. Add a hot day in August, and that number triples. We have far too many overlapping calls for this system to solely work with one ambulance for the entire western half of the county. Brad gives the solution that we will simply hold mutual aid agreements with neighboring agencies. As an EMT in Laurel and a dispatcher in Billings, I can attest this will not work so easily. American Medical Response cannot always cover their own calls in the City of Billings—Lockwood is frequently called to assist with 9-1-1 calls in the city limits of Billings. Park City can barely answer their own calls—let alone be backup for us. Columbus cannot afford to come 25 miles outside of their response area to cover a call for us. Joliet again—struggles to respond to calls in their own jurisdiction, nonetheless go 18 miles outside of their area. And pulling Red Lodge 45 miles from their area? Forget about it. Mutual aid only works when the other agencies can afford to help out—and the reality is that none of the neighboring agencies around Laurel can. Consider the 4th of July in Laurel. Thousands of people converge on our area, mixing alcohol and fireworks. Can the county EMS system adequately provide coverage for this entire event—which frequently rings in upwards of 15 calls in the day?
The volunteers are well aware of the crisis our ambulance service is in. We feel the strain closer than anyone else. But this is not because volunteers are not giving time. This is because the volunteers we already have simply have no more time to give. I hear a lot of complaints from people about how their loved one had to wait an hour for an ambulance. I hear a lot of complaints how they listen on their home scanners to calls go unanswered. But I rarely see anybody (especially those who complain) step up to help. We need volunteers, but what we need more than ever is a voice over at City Hall. City Hall is done hearing what we have to say—but they still have to answer to the citizens. Does anybody really think that the county-based EMS system is going to work 20 years from now when Billings and Laurel finally sew up the gap? Absolutely not—and we will be right back in another crisis. Why don’t we tackle this issue now rather than wait for the next big problem? Talk to your councilors about a paid service. We need it now, but we will especially need it in the years to come. There’s plenty of money in the city’s coffers. The amount of money has never been the issue—it is the distribution of money that’s already there. Don’t you think it is time that the City of Laurel starts making medical emergencies a priority? If Brad could guarantee a second ambulance to this half of the county, I would be all for this system. I’d turn in my radio and uniforms tomorrow to help make that system work. But since I doubt he can—let’s not reinvent the wheel. The City of Laurel needs to be held responsible for this crisis—and the blame starts at the top. It is time to fund a full-time ambulance service.
 
-Riley Hutchens, NREMT

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