Assembly forms eastern peninsula highway service area

This map shows the newly formed Eastern Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area, which authorizes the Kenai Peninsula Borough to provide emergency services along the Sterling and Seward Highways, where thousands of drivers pass through largely empty land on their way to the peninsula every day. (Courtesy the Kenai Peninsula Borough)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has taken the first step toward providing a safety net of emergency services for scarcely-population potions of the eastern peninsula with the formation of an Eastern Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area.

 

The assembly unanimously approved forming the service area at its Tuesday meeting, which includes the 113 miles of highway from east of Cooper Landing north to Ingram Creek and south to Bear Creek. Only the highway itself is included — unique among service areas, this one has no residents and is designed specifically to provide relief for several small volunteer fire and emergency service areas that are stretched thin to help all the victims of car accidents along the highway.

Approval of the service area does not automatically create a budget or a board for it, nor is it effective until Gov. Bill Walker signs enabling legislation. The Alaska House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday approved a bill allowing second-class boroughs to form such service areas, but it does not become law until Walker signs it. Once the service area effective, people have to apply for seats on its five-member board and be approved by the assembly. The service area board will be the body that determines the functions, future and budget for the area.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre proposed funding the service with federal dollars through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes money the borough gets as payment for all the federal land in the borough. The money currently goes to the borough’s general fund.

“The reality is that displaces other funding in the budget because it’s already being fully utilized,” Navarre said.

The service area proposal is the product of years of frustration by the all-volunteer Cooper Landing Emergency Services and Moose Pass Volunteer Fire Department, which end up making multi-hour runs to help car accident victims, most of whom do not live in those two small communities. The borough’s Healthcare Task Force in 2016 formed subcommittees, one of which was charged with addressing issues in EMS response. Subcommittee Co-chair Stormy Brown said the members did tons of research to come up with the solution, the first of its kind in Alaska.

“This has been … months and months and months of meetings and data, and (we) found that even more, a higher percentage of response on the highway that all these little communities are responding to, are you and me,” she said. “It’s somewhere in the range of 70 percent. So this really is about us (who don’t live in those communities.)”

Members of the public lined up at the assembly meeting Tuesday to testify, many with emotional stories about the long wait times for help along the highway corridor in questions and EMT burnout. Cooper Landing residents said they value keeping their ambulance service, but they have limited funding available and want to not use up all their resources responding to accidents along the highway. A group of about 20 Cooper Landing seniors carpooled to the assembly meeting to reinforce their support for the service area.

Mayme Ohnemus, a Cooper Landing resident who formerly volunteered with Cooper Landing Emergency Services, said the calls are long and demanding on the volunteers. The ambulance service is a community effort, often funded by community donations, she said.

“It is at least five hours by the time you get out of bed, get dressed, get down to the ambulance and get out to where the accident is or emergency,” Ohnemus said. “It’s a five-hour (trip) that you’re out and back to the hospital and back home. That’s five hours that you’re out of service for another emergency.”

The formation of the service area doesn’t mean additional money for Cooper Landing’s volunteers, but it provides a mechanism though which, in the future, the borough can put forward more resources that are specifically dedicated to dealing with just the highway, the only through-way for the Kenai Peninsula on the ground. Theo Lexmond, a Cooper Landing Emergency Services board member, said the organization gets funding both from some insurance reimbursements for transportation and from community fundraisers, but its approximately $131,000 annual budget is stretched thin providing services all along the highway corridor. Using the PILT dollars to provide services on the eastern peninsula highways, which pass through federal land anyway, makes sense, he said.

“The volunteers of Cooper Landing Emergency Services have carried the load of emergency response for all of these travelers on long stretches of the Sterling and Seward highways for decades,” Lexmond said. “That era has ended. It is too much to ask of a tiny community and an all-volunteer organization.”

Lori Tyler, training officer for Central Emergency Services in Soldotna, said she volunteers at Cooper Landing in her off time. The volunteers put in hundreds of hours and can be asked to deal with situations they are not qualified to deal with, many of them traumatic in nature. The volunteers often don’t live in the community, either, she said.

“We drive long distances to work very long hours and we have very little compensation,” Tyler said. “… The potential for funding that may or may not come with this highway corridor would give us the ability to find creative ways to keep this service in play.”

Representatives from both Moose Pass and Hope spoke in favor of the formation, as well as the chiefs of the Kachemak Emergency Service Area, Nikiski Fire Department and Central Emergency Services. The lack of organized support affects all the other service areas, but CES particularly, as the Soldotna-based emergency service responds to help Cooper Landing and Moose Pass under a mutual aid agreement. CES Chief Roy Browning said the organization supports the formation of the new service area.

“We are in support of this ordinance because we feel that this is something that the funding will provide sustainability,” he said. “… Let them determine the level of service that they want to provide and be able to fund that and provide some structure and sustainability for all Alaskans that travel up and down that highway corridor.”

The assembly didn’t have much discussion about the service area before passing it unanimously. Navarre said the assembly will have a chance to weigh in on the service area board members and on the proposed budget and services for the area as well.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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