Patching the peninsula's safety net

Cooper Landing volunteer force struggles with emergency response

During an emergency, a call to 911 is forwarded from a dispatch center to a responding agency like the Kenai Fire Department or Central Emergency Services. Whether residents can count on a responding ambulance in some isolated areas of the Kenai Peninsula, however, may be up for debate.

 

Cooper Landing Emergency Services is working with Central Emergency Services, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and others to address the ongoing issue of its ability to respond to accidents and medical emergencies in Cooper Landing and the surrounding, sparsely populated area. The service is completely run by volunteers and is responsible for emergency calls from about mile 75 of the Seward Highway, where the Kenai Peninsula begins, to Jean Lake Hill on the Sterling Highway, said CLES president Dan Michels.

Because the Cooper Landing community itself is outside the Central Emergency Service Area, CLES and CES have an agreement through which they can come to each other’s aid when one or the other is overwhelmed.

“Really what it is is that they have a mutual aid agreement so that they can … share resources in times of need,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

However, because of the difficulty Cooper Landing faces in maintaining an active group of volunteers, the mutual aid agreement is most often used by Cooper Landing volunteers to request help from CES.

The borough recently reached out to CLES for a meeting to remind both agencies of the terms of the agreement, Navarre said. Mutual aid can technically only be requested if one of the organizations has responded to an incident first and then decides that further assistance is needed.

Recently, when the volunteers for CLES have been out of the area and physically unable to respond to emergencies, some calls have been being routed through the 911 dispatch directly to CES for them to respond.

“Other than that (a mutual aid request), that’s the only time we can go out of our service area to respond to Cooper Landing,” said CES Chief Roy Browning. “The problem is if they have no responders to go, technically, we’re not legally obligated to just go.”

From 2013 through 2015, Cooper Landing volunteers handed off 14 calls to CES through the mutual aid agreement after they had responded first, according to data provided by Michels. Michels said CLES has about seven regularly active firefighters but only two active emergency medical technicians who live in town, one of whom is 71.

“It had gotten to the point where, when we didn’t have anybody able to run, then it kind of by default had fallen to CES,” Michels said. “And that was what the meeting was really called for, was just to make sure we all understand that … what happens when they (residents) call and we’re out of (the) service (area).”

Routing emergency calls directly to CES is problematic because it takes resources away from the residents the department normally serves, Browning said.

“We are trying to assist them as much as possible, to help them,” Browning said. “We’re not saying we’re not going to go, but ... things are getting tighter here, which makes it difficult for us to go.”

Navarre said the issue is “not easily resolved.” If calls made in the CLES area while its volunteers are away don’t get forwarded to CES, there is no agency left on the peninsula to transport the person who called, Michels said.

“Literally, if we’re not available … if we’re not running, you are out of luck,” Michels said.

CLES responded to 254 calls that resulted in transportation to Central Peninsula Hospital from 2013 through 2015, according to data provided by Michels. During those three years, roughly half of the calls each year came from within Cooper Landing itself, while the rest were from outside the town.

Of the medical calls made within the Cooper Landing area in 2013, 13 were for residents while 21 were for visitors. In 2014, 16 of the same type of calls made within the town were for visitors while nine were for residents. In 2015, CLES responded to 18 medical calls in Cooper Landing for visitors and 12 for residents.

Michels said he doubts residents of Cooper Landing would be likely to form a service area funded through a tax base like the Central Emergency Services Area, mostly because they would be paying for services for the large number of motorists who travel through the town on their way to somewhere else and for the seasonal visitors.

One of the biggest challenges Cooper Landing faces is its lack of young people who have the free time to commit to being a volunteer, Michels said. Most who live in the area are nearer to retirement age, and those who are young often have families and demanding day jobs, he said. Michels explained that a single emergency response can take his volunteers to the opposite end of their jurisdiction, at mile 75 of the Seward Highway.

Patients then have to be transported to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna before volunteers make the drive back to Cooper Landing.

“It can be anywhere from a five- to an eight-hour day,” Michels said, adding that “It’s hard to find anybody that can commit to that kind of a time frame.”

When CLES does get volunteers from elsewhere on a short-term basis, the people are quickly burnt out by the taxing call volume, Michels said.

The borough is planning future meetings with both CES and CLES to address possible short and long-term solutions, Navarre said. Terminating the mutual aid agreement is not something anyone wants to do, but a solution to fill the gap in service needs to be found, he said.

One short-term solution being considered is encouraging some of CES’s first responders in its recently revamped volunteer program to spend time getting practice in Cooper Landing, Navarre said.

Michels said CLES is looking at the possibility of providing motor homes or some other kind of housing in Cooper Landing for the volunteers or for those who come from out of state in the summer when the area’s call volume is at its peak.

“We’re actually even looking at putting in a bunkhouse at the ambulance hall so volunteers who come up will have decent place to stay,” he said.

In the absence of a long-term solution, however, Michels said the volunteer service has talked about the possibility of voting on whether or not to reduce the size of its response jurisdiction. In that case, CLES would only respond to the “Cooper Landing area,” between miles 42 and 58 of the Sterling Highway, Michels said.

“Do we want to abandon the road system? No,” he said. “But do I have enough people to continue to do it? No.”

An emergency trauma technician course will begin in Cooper Landing on March 18, according to the Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce website.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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