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Residents willing to pay more for quality ambulance service

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Based on two recent listening sessions, Sawyer County residents appear to be willing to pay more taxes for a full-time ambulance staff in order to retain qualified emergency medical specialists (EMS) and ensure a reliable response time to 911 calls.

Listening sessions about Sawyer County Ambulance Service were held Tuesday, Nov. 27, in Hayward and Wednesday, Nov. 28, in Winter. They offered input to a study being prepared by Dan Williams, an emergency medical services (EMS) consultant with 45 years of experience and director of Door County Emergency Services. He led each session.

Williams was hired to offer a recommendation on whether county ambulance should shift from volunteers staffing open slots to a full-time service in which EMS workers are employees with benefits who are assigned shifts. Ambulance Director Eric Nilson has advocated for full-time status to retain qualified workers and to better respond to staffing needs.

On Nov. 15, the board approved a 2017 budget anticipating a full-time service, but the actual decision to go full time awaits receipt of Williams’ study, which will be offered as a “preliminary recommendation” at the Dec. 15 board meeting.

Williams also will offer recommendations about the location of a southern ambulance station and other operational matters. Ambulance crews now are stationed 24/7 in the City of Hayward in the northern end of the county and in the Village of Radisson at a former school building in the southern end.

Other county ambulance crews are located around the county, Town of Round Lake, Stone Lake and Village of Winter, but on a lower, on-call status of readiness at a lower hourly rate.

The consensus is the Radisson building is inadequate due to the high cost of heating/maintenance and mold.

A petition with 533 signatures has been submitted to the board to have the southern 24/7 ambulance operating from the Village of Winter out of the fire hall where one ambulance bay and living quarters already exist.

Nilson has proposed a new facility in Ojibwa, halfway between villages of Radisson and Winter, at the Highway 70 and County Highway G intersection, due to its proximity to majority of the calls.

Introducing Williams in both Hayward and Winter was Bill Voight, County Board vice chair and chair of the Public Safety Committee. Several county supervisors and Administrator Tom Hoff also attended.

“Distance,” said Williams, is the challenge for rural ambulance service, a factor that also influences where ambulance stations are located and whether employees should be full-time.

Illustrating the ambulance challenge, at the beginning of the Winter meeting one of the volunteer EMS workers said that evening crews were scrambling to fill voids when the Hayward ambulance went on a call and the Radisson crew had to move north to fill in for the Hayward crew.

Williams said there would always be instances where the ambulance service is stretched by demand.

“There is no way to staff for being overwhelmed because you can’t afford to staff when you’re overwhelmed,” he said. “You just have to do the best that you can.”

Public input

Much of the same concerns expressed in Hayward over response time and retaining qualified EMS were also voiced in Winter.

Asked about considerations for locating an ambulance station, Williams said, he would consider call volume, response time from different locations, acceptable response times and the road system.

In Winter, Brenda Adler said she had taken her husband, Mel, twice to the emergency room herself because she couldn’t wait for an ambulance, and she asked Williams to consider not just the number of ambulance run calls but the number of people who walk into an ER who couldn’t wait for an ambulance.

“Maybe we can look at the number of people coming into the emergency room who didn’t have the benefit of ambulance and maybe should have had an ambulance but didn’t,” she said.

A man from Conner’s Lake on the far eastern side of the county said he is concerned about response time, a concern that was expressed for many living in remote rural areas.

“There will always be certain pockets that will be difficult to cover,” Williams said.

Louise Ladenthin, an advance emergency medical technician (AEMT) who lives in the Town of Ojibwa and had worked for Sawyer County Ambulance for 40 years, said the ambulance service was great, but she was critical of what she called the “paramedic program” that began two and a half years ago as being “well intended but poorly rolled out and underfunded and plagued with problems.”

Ladenthin supported full-time status and suggested those working full-time could also avail themselves to work closer with hospitals, possibly even providing some services such as labs and replacing dressings, as well as conducting public health education.

She also advocated for a trained emergency medical dispatcher – a dispatcher trained for medical emergencies who can walk callers through protocols to help victims. However, Williams said this type of medical dispatcher also would cost the county more money.

Lastly, she encouraged Williams to contact the LCO tribe because it is a population center in the county and includes a school system.

Supervisor Helen Dennis said the people of the Winter area are frustrated by attending listening sessions and seeing no action, and she also said the current response from the Radisson ambulance to Winter is too long.

“We’ve had listening sessions until we are blue in the face and we’ve had two sets of petitions and the current one with 500,” she said. “We don’t want that to go unnoticed.”

Supervisor Marc Helwig asked why the Winter Fire Hall ambulance was not being used.

“You don’t have EMTs in the area?” he asked. “What’s the problem that it is not being serviced in the area here?”

Dennis said the Winter ambulance is one of the oldest in the county’s fleet and no one is signing up at 1.5 hours for on-call status because they would rather work in Radisson at a higher rate of pay.

Gail Johnson of Ojibwa also questioned why the county would set aside $400,000 in its capital improvement program for a ambulance building when the Winter Fire Hall already has an ambulance bay with living quarters and access to the hall’s kitchen, bathrooms and showers.

Another resident in Winter said the ambulance service should focus on 911 calls and not transfers that originate out of the county.

Supervisor Elaine Nyberg said her nephew graduated from high school as an EMT and asked if that could happen here. Williams said high schools working with technical colleges have been able to certify students as EMTs.

Nilson said if the county does not go full-time it will be more difficult to retain his staff who are noted for being exceptionally well trained, experienced and in-demand by other ambulance services.

“If we can’t retain these people, we are not going to solve what problems we have,” he said.

“I think if we were full time it would open us up to attract better qualified EMTs and paramedics,” Voight said. “It would be easier because we would have something to offer – benefits and a stable position.”

Rob Sparhawk, an EMT, said when he is on call from Radisson or Hayward and not on a run he only makes $5 an hour. He said the “passion” driving EMS workers is the work but they also have bills to pay.

“They do really love doing this,” he said. “Deep down, I feel, that is the reason they are doing it, but you have to make ends meet, and when you are not putting food on the table and gas in the car, you are not getting to the ambulance.”

Talking to county residents, Williams said, the perception he’s received is the quality of Sawyer County Ambulance service is “high” and talking to the volunteer EMS workers he found the morale “good.”

At the Winter hearing, Voight twice questioned why more people were not attending if there was concern about placing the 24/7 ambulance in Winter.

“Where are all the 533 people who signed this petition? “Voight asked. “That’s what I’d like to know.”

Ladenthin said she had talked to a number who had signed the petition and they thought the county board was on the right track.

At the end of the Winter meeting, Williams said, there is no “magic wand” for Sawyer County’s needs.

“But there are many pieces that have to be put together for the system,” he said, “so I can assure you I will do my best to provide you with a workable/usable document that hopefully you can put into practice and will be good for the community.”

© Copyright © 2016 Sawyer County Record, APG Media of Wisconsin LLC. All rights reserved.

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