Wash. city council delays ultimatum on EMS response times
Olympia Assistant Fire Chief Mike Buchanan explained that decreasing availability of private providers for BLS calls results in increased on-scene times
OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Olympia City Council was set to vote last week on a resolution to address a concerning trend in ambulance response times and services.
But the council quickly delayed the decision after leaders of Thurston County's EMS system said they were only notified that day of the city's intent to issue a 60-day notice for private services to make improvements or a city-owned ambulance service would take their place.
Olympia assistant fire chief Mike Buchanan gave a presentation to the council on ambulance response times in Thurston County. To set the stage, he explained that incoming calls for service are put into two categories: Advanced Life Support, which is handled by Thurston County Medic One, and Basic Life Support, which is primarily handled by private ambulance companies when available.
"The problem is that we have decreasing availability by private ambulance providers, resulting in increased on-scene times," Buchanan said.
For example, he said Fire Station 2 handles west Olympia. When 911 is called, a fire unit will go, and if BLS is needed but an ambulance isn't available from Olympic Ambulance or Medic One, a call gets sent out to other units around the county and they'll use fire aid transport as a last resort.
The fire response team has to wait on the scene until those in need of medical care have been transferred to equal or higher care, Buchanan said. This makes them unavailable for other calls that may be coming in. And when units from other jurisdictions are having to help, that makes them unavailable in their own areas as well.
Analyzing yearly data, Buchanan said there were about 270 BLS transports from April 2021 to April 2022. Throughout the last year, BLS transports that resulted in a delay rose from 14% in April to 40% in October. Last month, 31% resulted in delays.
Over a five-year period in Olympia, call volume and response times have been getting longer. Buchanan said the reason is more incidents, which means more concurrent calls, which then increases the workload of the already-stretched emergency response team in the county.
Buchanan said the combination of lack of private ambulance services and increased call volume is affecting the emergency response system, even outside the boundaries of Olympia. But the resolution council was considering focused on how Olympia is being affected.
Kurt Hardin, director of emergency services for Thurston County, praised the council for its past support of tax levies to raise money for private ambulance services. But he said the resolution has unintended consequences within the Thurston County EMS system as a whole, not just Olympia.
Hardin requested that the council defer its decision on the resolution until presentations have been given to Medic One and private ambulance companies on what the issues are and what the potential impacts of being separated from Olympia would have.
Hardin said the Thurston County Fire Chiefs Association has a tentative meeting scheduled for this week to go over ambulance utilization tactics that was organized before the city made them aware of the resolution and 60-day notice.
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Cindy Hambly, a citizen member of the EMS Council, said the council hadn't been briefed on the situation. She also asked the council to delay the decision until all parties involved have had a chance to review data on the effects such a move could have on the county.
"Because the agencies in the EMS system are so tightly integrated, one small change will impact the entire system," Hambly said.
In response to calls to delay the council's decision, city manager Jay Burney said it's the first he's heard concerns on the matter and agreed it should be tabled until stakeholders have had a chance to review the data.
"We're greatly concerned with the trend we're seeing and the lack of private ambulance service and BLS support," Burney said. "It's a major issue and it's affecting our community."
Mayor Cheryl Selby said she is pleased to see representatives of EMS services advocating to delay the decision and to do the proper amount of outreach.
"We have a responsibility to our community at large to make sure that everyone's needs are served, and with what that picture looks like, it's necessary to have everybody at the table," Selby said.
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