Emergency services seek continued funding

The quality of rural ambulance service in Island County, including response times and innovations in medical technology, will be an issue in the upcoming local election.

Voters will be asked September 17 if they want to support another four-year levy to fund Emergency Medical Service (EMS) throughout Island County, with no increase in the total amount from the 37 cents (per $1,000 of assessed property value) approved during the last four-year levy cycle.

EMS manager Roger Meyers is careful to point out that this is not a “new” levy, as some folks have misunderstood it. “This is just a continuation of the standard levy we’ve had in the past,” Meyers said Thursday. “It’s the same one voters approved four years ago. We’re all extremely proud of this system, and it’s largely because of the support of that levy.”

When they went to the booths back in 1998, residents gave the nod to a 12 cent bump in the EMS levy amount, the first such increase in 20 years. This funds approximately 46 percent of the total EMS budget at Whidbey General Hospital, which Meyers said is about $4.2 million annually. Though officials have proposed to keep the levy at 37 cents this time around, Meyers said passage of the levy is crucial to maintaining the level of emergency service currently being offered in Island County.

“We feel that we can still provide a high-grade, excellent service to the community,” Meyers said. “We did not feel that an increase would be appropriate at this time. We felt that the 37 cents would be enough.”

Whidbey General is the only licensed transport paramedic agency on the island — so, basically, the levy is an either/or proposition regarding funding for all available emergency services. Meyers said because the levy provides nearly half the overall EMS budget, it’s disappearance would mean a definite impact to the level of service throughout the island.

“If you took away half of that money, it would have detrimental effects,” he said. “That would be very devastating to the service. It would not look like it does today. It may lead to longer response times and impact availability of our ambulances.”

There are currently 12 ambulances in the EMS fleet, and a new ambulance has just been ordered. There are 9 ambulances strategically placed around the island, ready to respond to emergencies; 4 of these are what Meyers called advanced life support paramedic rigs, and five are fire department vehicles ready to respond and assist on calls of a less severe nature.

Meyers said the stationing of ambulances at fire stations has led to confusion about the EMS system, with some people thinking that there are two distinct agencies that can respond to emergencies. This is not so.

All emergency services, including vehicles, are owned and operated by the hospital. Fire districts, Meyers said, along with police and I-COM (the county’s emergency communication system) simply cooperate with EMS in responding to calls, though he adds that when it comes to the current high level of service, such teamwork is crucial.

Meyers said the unique geography of the island — which, he added, is “shaped like a green bean” — presents difficulties for EMS workers, especially in getting to where they need to be quickly. Because of the cooperation of multiple agencies, Meyers said his department has been successful in meeting their goal of arriving at the scene of emergencies within moments of a call. “We kind of pride ourselves on trying to get to most areas within six minute of call,” he said, pointing out that EMS accomplishes this goal about 90 percent of the time.

“It’s a large service for a population of this size,” Meyers said. “By the generosity of the public supporting us, we have been able to build a system that is in high regard all over our region. We’re very fortunate,” he added. “We all work very effectively as a team.”

Besides the addition of a new ambulance, the upcoming levy would support the construction of an administrative office within the hospital, which Meyers said is important to the organization and operative efficacy of the system. Right now, EMS office are located in a trailer, and Meyers said it’s pretty cramped.

He said that people have questioned why the administrative office wasn’t included in the construction of the new ambulance station in Oak Harbor, a project supported by the current levy. “We’ve found that being centrally located is important,” Meyers said. “If I was in Oak Harbor, I would lose that continuity with the ambulances. We though that it was imperative to be centrally located.”

The new administration building would allow all EMS personnel to be housed in the same location, which would improve both the efficiency and productivity of the entire system, Meyers added.

The levy would also support some system-wide improvements, including the addition of newer, more efficient EKG monitors, further replacement of aging ambulances when necessary and the implementation of a community AED training program. The Automated External Defibrillator is a small, 9-pound device that can be operated with minimal training. The machine can evaluate cardiac rhythm and administer electrical shocks to reset an erratic heartbeat. The AED would be placed strategically, such as on buses and other public gathering places.

“Obviously, we keep current with all the technological advances, and will continue to do so,” Myers said.

Since the 9/11 attacks, EMS systems also have had to keep current on strategies for responding to mass threats of bio-terrorism, and Meyers said it’s no different in Whidbey Island. “We’ve allocated already a lot of time and expense to that,” he said. We’ve all had to step up and, unfortunately, have plans for bio-terrorism hazards. We are spending a lot of time and resources making sure that we’re as prepared as anybody. It’s something that we’ve all addressed.”

Of course, maintaining such a system is an expensive proposition, especially in the current climate of escalating costs in every field of health care. However, Meyers said EMS officials are committed to keeping costs at a minimum while also providing a high level of service. “It is an expensive system, because we’ve tried to meet everybody’s needs,” he said. “Part of the reason that they hired me is to make sure we have a budget and stick to it. It’s really easy to run an EMS system if you keep throwing money at it to make it work. But we’ve been able to do things cost effectively,” he said, adding that this is largely why the upcoming levy represents a zero increase.

Meyers said the effectiveness of the island’s EMS system, both in financial and productive terms, has made the agency something of a model throughout the region. “Many agencies have inquired as to how we’ve accomplished this,” he said. “A lot of agencies can’t understand how we’ve been so effective in meeting the island’s needs. But because of the public support, we’ve been able to not only meet those needs today, but we’ll meet their needs far into the future.”

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