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Island EMS may add paid EMTs to volunteers

A San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services ambulance took longer to respond to a 911 call than normal. This may change how the department operates.

That’s what EMS Chief Jerry Martin said at a meeting for the San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 on Sept. 27.

“This was a bad representation of our department,” said Martin. “This is not the way we do business.”

EMS staff, he said, will review the possibility of hiring emergency medical technicians, the week of Oct. 2. Currently, at San Juan Island EMS, the vast majority of EMTs are volunteers.

On Saturday, Sept. 23, 911 was called after an 11-year-old football player, from a mainland team, received a reported roughly five-second concussion from hitting another player in the head. Both were wearing helmets.

Martin told the Journal that an EMT, who was not scheduled but near the scene, arrived first, followed by a paramedic and a doctor. Once first responders knew the patient was stable, the paramedic went to the station to retrieve the ambulance.

He said it took 20 minutes from the time a 911 dispatcher contacted EMS, to the time the ambulance left the station, then another two minutes for the vehicle to arrive at the Friday Harbor Elementary School football field.

On average, he said, it takes about five minutes to get an ambulance in route. He added that he recently talked to the injured boy’s mother, who said he’s fine.

Martin told the Journal his staff will review possibilities to decrease response times, including if 24-hour EMS staffing is needed.

Martin said there are about 30 volunteer EMTs, in addition to three paid EMTs. There are four paid paramedics.

There are always one to two paramedics on duty, he noted, but not always an EMT. All EMT volunteers, however, are able to receive pages from 911 and respond to them, like in the Sept. 23 incident.

EMTs are basic life support positions, while paramedics are more advanced, and both can drive ambulances. Out of the roughly 37 members of the EMS paid and volunteer staff, only about two are not certified to drive ambulances, said Martin.

EMS is subsidized on the island by property taxes through a levy with the county’s public hospital district No. 1. On San Juan Island, insurance companies are charged for ambulance transports, but island residents do not pay residuals.

The hospital district covers San Juan Island, and the outer islands of Brown, Henry, Pearl, Speiden, Johns, and Stuart.

At the meeting, Martin explained that there had been slow patient transfers in the past, but “nothing like this.”

“There’s no one to blame on this call, except for me,” said Martin. “I’m the chief, it rests with me.”

At the public hospital district meeting, Martin also noted that EMS will purchase a new ambulance by the end of the year. The cost will be split between the EMS tax levy and transport fees acquired from insurance companies, as well as the San Juan Island EMT Association. The association is a 501c3, which applies for grants to pay for some EMS community services, like carbon monoxide detectors for locals.

EMS staff also presented a three-year plan at the Sept. 27 meeting.

The plan includes a vision for the department, which is to “exceed the expectation of our unique island community” and a mission, which is to “serve our community, before, during, and after an emergency.”

It also prioritizes department strategies. The most important strategies included enhancing community engagement; clarifying department roles, responsibility and accountability; and establishing a financial reserve.

Bill Williams, chairman of the public hospital district, told the Journal the department is in a good place to plan for the future since the last, six-year, EMS levy passed in 2016.

“The development of the [plan is to] evaluate and coordinate the efforts of EMS to obtain the best results possible,” said Williams.

Review the plan, below, before the public hospital district board votes on it at the Oct. 25 meeting.

San Juan Island EMS 2017-21 Framework for Continuous Improvement: