Washington county's ambulance wait times may grow longer, officials warn

Long emergency room visits leave Thurston County EMS workers waiting to transfer patients to local hospitals


Martín Bilbao
The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

THURSTON COUNTY, Wash. — Limited ambulance availability and hospital capacity has been delaying Thurston County fire agencies' response to medical emergencies, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners learned last week.

Kurt Hardin, emergency services director at Thurston County, informed the board about the delays during a Thursday agenda review meeting. The county issued a press release on the matter Friday.

"People need health care; they need medical care. It's not COVID related. It's not any one particular situation," Thurston County, Washington's EMS director, Kurt Hardin, said. (Photo/Thurston County Public Health and Social Services)

The transport delays have been occurring during peak 911 call times from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and have been worsened by long emergency room wait times, according to a county news release. This mean EMS crews are waiting to transfer patients to emergency room staff at local hospitals when they would otherwise be back out in the field, Hardin said.

"These wait times do not mean there's not enough personnel on scene for that patient," Hardin said. "There is an EMS team on scene treating the patient as we're waiting for ambulance transport."

Thurston County EMS responds to more than 36,000 911 calls a year and is continuing to see increased call volumes, according to the county news release.

Hardin said the county has not had to activate surge capacity — the ability to manage a sudden influx of patients — at its hospitals since 2017 when an Amtrak train derailed from a bridge onto the I-5 near DuPont.

The current delays are affecting services along the I-5 corridor, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be any one factor driving that," Hardin said. "People need health care; they need medical care. It's not COVID related. It's not any one particular situation."

The county's two local hospitals, MultiCare Capital Medical Center and Providence St. Peter Hospital, have increased bed capacity at their emergency departments and are working to improve patient processing, Hardin said.

However, the county is also adapting its EMS service to meet the need in the community. Medic One is working with the county's 12 fire agencies to provide surge capacity throughout the EMS system when needed, per the release.

"Keep in mind, fire agencies also have to keep personnel back for fire response," Hardin said. "We are in an extremely dry environment right now."

Hardin said some patients will be rerouted from emergency rooms to urgent care centers when its appropriate. They will also place an EMS team at St. Peter to provide patient care, allowing transport vehicles to return to the field.

The county's news release outlines some immediate solutions. These include improving the efficiency of EMS's handoff to emergency rooms, increasing the number of available transport units in the Thurston County EMS system, and improving the onboarding process for new emergency medical technicians in Thurston County.

In addition to that, the release indicates the county may look at expanding "available medical infrastructure" in the county and region.

"All of the involved agencies are working hard to address the emergent medical needs of Thurston County's residents and continue to provide these important services," Hardin said in the news release.

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(c)2021 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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