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District 15 reaches out to District 20 amid ambulance concerns

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Lewis County Fire District 15 Commissioner Randy Pennington (far left) speaks with members of the Vader City Council during the council's regular meeting Aug. 28 to explain his district's concerns for the future of ambulance service within Cowlitz-Lewis Fire District 20, serving Vader and Ryderwood. It is the contention of Pennington and other EMS officials in the area that District 20 may find themselves unable to provide ambulance transportation in the future unless significant steps are taken to secure long-term resources, such as through a property tax increase.

Officials with Lewis County Fire District 15, based in Winlock, met with the Vader City Council Aug. 28 to clarify concerns regarding the future of ambulance service in the Vader and Ryderwood areas.

It has been stated recently by members of District 15, as well as Lewis County Fire District 2, in Toledo, that residents in Vader and Ryderwood should be asked to consider increasing property tax rates within Cowlitz-Lewis Fire District 20, serving those areas, so the district will be able to retain enough EMS personnel to maintain regular ambulance coverage.

District 15 Commissioner Randy Pennington told the council, if steps are not taken to do so, ambulance providers from Longview or Chehalis may have to respond to the area instead, resulting in grim outlooks for critical patients.

"It's a real situation, one that I thought everyone needs to be aware of," he said, stating District 15 was close to finding itself in the same boat just a few years ago as the availability of volunteer responders began shrinking significantly.

Pennington said many rural fire districts are having increased difficulty complying with state regulations outlined in WAC 246-976-390, which require at least two certificated responders during the transportation of a trauma patient, with trauma being defined as any physical injury to the body.

In the case of basic life support responses, agencies must provide at least one EMT and one person certified in advanced first aid, while advanced life support responses require at least one paramedic and one EMT.

Pennington said, though it was once common among fire districts to have access to ample volunteers for such positions, volunteering as an EMT today has become much more of a commitment due to increases in call volumes, as well as training requirements.

"Now, instead of asking your volunteer to give one or two nights a month for one or two hours," he said, comparing modern responses to those encountered 30 years ago, "we're asking them to give up as many as 30 nights or days a month, for four hours [or] five hours a pop."

Pennington added the requirements to train an EMT have gone up from 80 hours of instruction to more than 200 hours of instruction, while it costs a fire district around $1,000 to send a volunteer to the classes, whether or not they graduate.

The solution for District 15, explained Pennington, was to propose an EMS levy, which would provide funding dedicated to EMS personnel and equipment. District 15 now employs a full-time staff of EMTs during the workdays and utilizes volunteers at other times, and is hoping to pass a similar levy this year to replace the older levy as it expires.

Pennington said it may be in District 20's best interests to consider a similar levy increase, either for its ambulance services or for the district as a whole.

Presently, District 20 is able to use their sole EMT, Ruth Crear, for ambulance transportation with the help of Districts 15 and 2, who have committed to provide extra staffing when needed. But Pennington said District 15 may soon encounter such a high call volume, as well as a need to commit funding and staffing elsewhere, they will no longer be available to assist District 20.

"We're going to continue doing what we're doing, as long as we can financially and physically do it," he said, stating District 15 has been providing a majority of EMS responses within District 20 as of late at a cost to District 15 of around $200 per response in fuel and personnel. "Please don't misunderstand me that we're saying that we don't want to do it. What I'm saying is we have a concern we might not be able to continue to do it... There is a time coming where we will not be able to simply because of the call volume and the cost."

Vader officials said they appreciated Pennington's

presentation, though it touched on difficult subjects, with Mayor Ken Smith calling the information "alarming and yet valuable."

"I should assure the council that I will be in contact with Pennington and others as far as finding a way to best address this challenge," continued Smith, stating he feels the community of Vader has a consistent history of generating volunteers at times when they are most needed. "When one makes a fervent request for assistance, it's startling, invariably, at how we get responsivity from our residents."

District 20 Chief Rich Underdhal has previously stated he and district officials are exploring ways to both ensure continued ambulance responses within the area as well as accommodated the needs of District 15 in their local responses. Underdhal has said a levy increase is being considered, though it would require approval by District 20 commissioners to be placed on the ballot, then approval by voters during an upcoming election. The next meeting of the District 20 Board of Commissioners is scheduled for this Thursday at 7 p.m.

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