POLK COUNTY — The Southwest Polk Rural Fire District took the next step in acquiring a new ambulance last week, but not without drawing opposition from the other area fire chiefs.
Chief Fred Hertel received support from the Polk County Commissioners Aug. 24 to write a letter in support of Southwest Polk Fire District to apply for an ambulance licensure.
He explained Southwest Polk County Rural Fire District EMS is covered under Ambulance Service Area (ASA) 6, which includes Dallas and Falls City.
Dallas covers ambulance EMS calls within Southwest Polk. Using Willamette Valley Communications Center (WVCC) incident data, Southwest Polk provided 418 EMS calls with their Rickreall zone receiving the most calls at 164, followed by 89 in Bridgeport, 85 in Dallas, 52 in Salt Creek and 28 in East Bridgeport. An additional 47 mutual aid calls were made to other surrounding fire and EMS agencies.
Hertel said the added ambulance would cut down on response times.
“It’s no surprise that our south end in the Bridgeport area where we’re adding a new station has the longest response times for EMS, and provider as well, at 28:47,” Hertel said. “We know that in a cardiac arrest the survival mode when you get to five minutes of response time you have a about a 25% chance of survival. So those times need to be as close or lower as we can get it. So, we’re trying to do a distribution of resources so we can lower those response times.”
To continually improve service to residents within the Southwest Polk Fire District, its board is considering the following:
Pursuing ambulance licensure
Pursuing a general operating levy for additional staffing
Continuing to pursue partnerships, mergers and consolidations
The citizens approved a bond measure for the construction of new fire stations on Rickreall Road, Salt Creek Road and on South Kings Valley Highway in Bridgeport.
Those are estimated to be completed by end of summer this year with three new engines purchased in 2020 expected to be placed into service.
“Interesting EMS data point found West Valley Ambulance has had a 30% increase in call volume in the last two years and Sheridan has had a 20% increase,” Hertel said. “We’re looking for a way to provide and help with the increasing demand which requires a licensure and a letter of support from the county commissioners.”
He added Southwest Polk Fire District is looking to place the new ambulance in Salt Creek to start with.
Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst explained why he was 100% in support of Southwest Polk getting an ambulance in that region.
“While I was out at the groundbreaking ceremony in Salt Creek, I made the comment Highway 22 is one of the most dangerous stretches in the state,” Mordhorst said. “Nothing made more sense than putting a fire station with an ambulance to shorten the time frame. Because the average response time out there is 20 minutes. With a car accident, that can be a difference between a fatality and a just a serious wreck.”
But it’s a long process. Hertel explained. A positive answer on Aug. 24 requires Southwest Polk to next schedule a meeting with the Oregon Health Authority. OHA would in turn review operations of Southwest Polk’s system and the ambulance itself, which typically takes three months. He added another three months to the estimates due to OHA’ workload with COVID-19.
However, Dallas Fire & EMS Chief Todd Brumfield spoke out against the commissioners lending their support. In July he, Salem Fire Chief Mike Niblock and Polk County Fire District No. 1 Chief Ben Stange, sent a letter to the commissioners outlining their concerns over approving the request. They argued it would violate the county’s own ordinance.
“To grant Southwest Polk permission to operate an emergency ambulance service within any of the (seven) established ASAs in Polk County would violate the foregoing limit of ‘one emergency ambulance provider for each ASA,’” they wrote.
Brumfield said in at the meeting they also had three other concerns. First, he argued, basically Southwest Polk would be operating a roaming ambulance within the county that does not have an assigned service area.
Two, he worried Southwest Polk’s personnel, being dual role ambulance providers (EMS and fire), if they’re out on a fire apparatus, they would not have an ambulance available.
Third, Brumfield asked the difference between today and July 2019 when Southwest Polk had an ambulance in their area for two years by way of a partnership between Sheridan personnel stationed in Rickreall and with Southwest Polk staff.
“There was a partnership with Sheridan West Valley and Southwest Polk for couple years and that educated Southwest’s board of directors in the benefits of an ambulance,” Hertel said. “The board is worried about that partnership partially separating on Sept. 30.”
County legal counsel Morgan Smith explained why the request for a licensure had to come before an ambulance could be assigned to a service area.
“The way the process by statute unfolds is the county dictates service areas for ambulances. However, by administrative rule, we are not permitted to assign an ASA until it is licensed,” Smith said. “Once there is an additional need demonstrated to the county, we can add that letter of support to the application to OHA. Once it is licensed, then the issue of service area will be providing will go to the ASA for provincial approval for adoption by this county. By then it will have a service area.”
Hertel added the ambulance would operate in assigned ASAs upon their request only.
“We would not be jumping calls … we operate at the will of ASA providers and responsible parties for those ASAs,” Hertel said. “Currently, we have several partners in Sheridan, McMinnville, and West Valley who have all said they would use us in that capacity. They would start there and see where it goes from there.”
However, that made Brumfield worry the new ambulance would go to services north into Yamhill County more than south to calls in Polk County.
Hertel countered those ASAs are currently responsible for as much geographical area into Polk County as the providers “holistically in this county.”
“The Southwest board of directors is asking for us to operate in Polk County,” Hertel concluded.
Polk County Commission Chair Craig Pope said his view is there has to be a licensure process that has to take place before doing anything else.
“You already have the vehicle. You have the staffing. There will be a recommendation of the ASA to the board of commissioners. Part of the process will be to get the committee up and running at full strength,” Pope said.
“I personally could not find myself in a place when I see the kind of response times demonstrated here, I get the mutual aid challenges, but we answer to the citizens,” Pope continued. “We would be negligent in my view, not to suggest to an opportunity when a fire district says we’re ready, we want to do it, you just need to tell us yes, I can’t find myself in a place where I wouldn’t do that.”
“I’m ready to move ahead,” said newest commissioner Jeremy Gordon. “The ASA question needs to be resolved and be done in a spirit of collaboration. But put public safety before anything. I’m ready to move forward.”
The licensure request was unanimously approved.