Seeing four-wheelers tearing down the beach with young drivers at the wheel wasn't an unusual sight for David Marquis of Kenai. But a medical emergency changed that quickly.
"A couple of kids, just being what children are, were going full-blast down the beach," said Marquis, who was part of a recent crowd of clam diggers at Clam Gulch. "Next thing we knew, a crowd of people was gathering around the kids."
Soon, an emergency response vehicle with flashing red lights arrived at the scene.
Approximately 35 minutes later, Marquis was getting ready to leave the beach and discovered a line of cars, including two ambulances, trying to do the same thing.
"They had to see-saw back and forth for quite some time to get out of that hole down there," he said of problems posed by the crowded parking area.
Being at the right place at the right time isn't easy for Kenai Peninsula emergency responders. High traffic volume, thousands of boaters on Cook Inlet and the Kenai River and a flood of clam diggers stretched along the beach from Ninilchik to Clam Gulch pose challenging situations and require teamwork of neighboring agencies.
According to Steve O'Connor, assistant chief for Central Emergency Services, CES ambulances are equipped with four-wheel drive; however, the vehicles also weigh 1 ton each.
"They're pretty heavy and won't travel well on the beach," he said. "But we do have several four-wheel drive pickups that we use for incidents like the one at Clam Gulch. And we also have a four-wheeler on a trailer that we can take with us."
Although O'Connor couldn't recall any incident on area beaches that CES crews couldn't access, he said there are other locations where the vehicles can't go.
"Some people work their way down the bluff to the beach," O'Connor said. "One or two people got themselves stuck and we had to go over the bluff after them. It was not an issue of having to take the ambulance. It was basically rappelling and getting someone out."
He also recalled challenging incidents along the river.
"A few years ago, somebody on Funny River Road was going down the bank to get in a boat, slipped and fell and broke a leg," O'Connor said. "It took us awhile, but we managed to get them stabilized and into the boat. The ambulance met them at the nearest boat launch."
There have also been incidents of fishers suffering heart attacks while fishing from boats.
"Generally, the people whose boat they're on just bring them to the nearest boat launch and we meet them," O'Connor said. "Other than the time it takes to get them off the river, we can have access in relatively easy fashion."
Of greater concern are boaters who flip their boats in the upper Kenai River.
"That can pose an access problem," O'Connor said. "But we have people trained in river rescue and water rescue. We also have a rigid hull, 14-foot inflatable boat with a single outboard motor we've had to use several times."
With regard to clogged parking areas and heavy traffic, O'Connor said, "Sometimes we may block people in, but people are generally understanding. We're there on some serious business, for lack of better words. I've never had anybody come in and complain to us, and the crews have never conveyed to me that anyone's given them a hard time about where we park."
However, crowded parking areas also work in reverse, slowing down or even prohibiting response times. Steve Vanek, board secretary of the Ninilchik Community Ambulance Association, recalled once such incident.
"I guess it was last year someone died down here on the beach and (the ambulance) couldn't get through because of all the cars and traffic that were jammed up on the road," Vanek said, referring to the access road on the north side of the Ninilchik River.
As a result, property owners and village residents installed a locked gate and issued keys to select individuals, including the ambulance association. However, continued vandalizing of the lock has made it necessary to frequently replace it and, unfortunately, not everyone has received new keys.
Sue Simonds, ambulance association treasurer and an EMT III, said on the same weekend as the incident at Clam Gulch, the Ninilchik crew responded to a call for help that required use of the access road. However, the lock had been changed and the ambulance crew didn't have the matching key.
"Our medics got the gurney under the gate and started heading down to the beach," Simonds said. "Some people realized what was going on and a pickup met the medics."
Even then, Ninilchik crews can only go so far.
"Although our new ambulance is four-wheel drive, we still can't take it on the beach because it's so heavy," Simonds said. "There's spots that it'll sink. Luckily, there's usually someone with a pickup that will take us to the person. We rely on people with pickup trucks or maybe one of our ambulance crew will drive down with their pickup when we realize that we can't walk to the person."
The Clam Gulch incident was one where Ninilchik teamed with CES. O'Connor, who has been with CES since 1988, offered some tips for the public to help cut down on emergency situations.
"If you spend thousands of dollars on a boat, you should also go out and spend some good solid dollars on your own safety and protection," O'Connor said. "Good float suits, knowledge of navigating equipment, first-aid equipment, that kind of thing. Just put it in perspective. If you're going to spend the money on a boat, spend some on yourself to make sure you come home safe. Be prepared, be safe and have the appropriate safety equipment."
With regard to youngsters' safety, like those at Clam Gulch, O'Connor urged close supervision by adults.
"No matter how hard you try, you think you've got an eye on them. But they can be gone in a heartbeat," he said. "They don't think about those safety things like an adult should."
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