Idaho ambulance service reaches crisis point

By Roger Bray
The Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO, Idaho — The November 8 ballot brings a crucial decision to the voters. The issue is to raise $15 in additional taxes per every $100,000 of taxable value each year to expand our ambulance service. A typical owner occupied home, valued at $150,000, will be taxed an additional $11.20 a year. That's less than $1 a month. If approved by a super majority of Bannock County citizens, another fully staffed ambulance will be in service beginning in 2013.

Many wonder why this issue is before them. The answer is that we are at a crisis point and the only realistic option available is to let the voters decide. The crisis results from having the same ambulance service we started with in 1978.

We have the same number of ambulances and the same amount of staff as we did 33 years ago. Then there were approximately 1,387 annual calls for ambulance services. This year we expect 6,500 annual calls for service , nearly a 500 percent increase in use! We cannot meet this demand, a demand projected to increase each year as our county grows and people age.

The city of Pocatello with its fire department contracts with Bannock County, which has the responsibility of the Ambulance District, to provide ambulance services throughout the county. The service comes through a combination of professional and volunteer providers. As the largest population in the county, the city of Pocatello has helped to address the increasing demand by shifting personnel to cover the peak periods. For years, this has been a stopgap measure; we knew we were approaching the breaking point. That is why this issue came before the voters last year.

We are now beyond the breaking point. Situations are regularly arising where we are out of resources for ambulances and for fire crews. This results in stacking emergency calls by priority. A tragic outcome is increasingly likely. Too often, we approach the day where a person or group of persons will not have an ambulance or a fire crew that can respond as rapidly as they required.

Chief Irwin has indicated that when resources are depleted our ability to rapidly respond with an ambulance or a fire crew is being compromised. As a result, he believes that we will see our rating for critical response severely downgraded from an ISO 3 to at least a 4, if not a 5.

Here is a projection of the reality we are facing. A fire occurs when we are out of resources. A five-person fire crew responds from the Indian Hills station to the Highland area. They arrive on the scene in nine minutes. Immediately they make sure no one is inside and go to work on preventing the spread of the fire to other properties. Instead of being able to focus on rapidly putting out the fire, they will have to monitor a controlled burn. A shortstaffed crew cannot fight a structure fire safely. It is a rule of thumb that when fighting a fire that a crew of 14 needs to be on the scene within the first eight minutes. Each minute thereafter allows the fire to double in size. A fire crew reaching a structure fire 12 minutes after it started faces the likelihood that the fire is now 16 times more intense than it was just four minutes prior.

A few situations like this mean that we will face higher insurance rates that calculates that structures will suffer an 85 to 100 percent loss instead of the 40 to 60 percent loss anticipated now. Injury, illness and fires are sensitive to critical response times.

We have exhausted the capabilities of dual services to the point of compromising the effectiveness of the Pocatello Fire Department, and because of our mutual response agreement, the Chubbuck Fire Department as well. It is time to expand the service and it requires the public to provide the levy increase to resource our service demands.

This is in the voters' hands. You can vote for a durable solution, or vote to continue a growing crisis.

Personally, the awareness that we are all at critical risk is all the motivation I need for supporting this levy.

Copyright 2011 Idaho State Journal

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