Mat-Su Borough adds more medics as call volume spikes
Daily call volume for emergency services in the Mat-Su Borough has more than doubled in the past eight years.
A proposal for reorganization of the Emergency Services Department shows that in 2010, the total number of emergency medical services calls was 4,093. In 2018, that number had ballooned to 9,343.
The area, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, has just four staffed ambulances per shift to cover the need.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom, it never stops. It never stops,” said Emergency Medical Services Battalion Chief Scott Williamson.
A normal day on shift for him is a busy one.
“There are days when we have multiple critical patients and I find myself literally almost all day and all night responding to calls,” Williamson said.
Part of his job is managing the few resources the Mat-Su Borough has. Their four ambulances respond from Cantwell to the Palmer-Wasilla core and north on the Glenn Highway almost to Glennallen.
“I’m always, in my mind, planning what am I going to do when that call comes out? Who am I going to be able to get available? What units are getting close to the hospital and can get turned around to respond to another call?” Williamson said.
A ride along with Williamson gives a clearer picture of the reality first responders face. The first stop was a medical call 12 miles down Knik-Goose Bay Road.
It was a quick scene to clear and the team was back on the road within about 10 minutes.
“Right now, I’ve got one ambulance that just showed up at the hospital, two that are on their way and one unit available,” Williamson said.
That status changed just 45 seconds later as a dispatcher called out information about another vehicle accident with three possibly patients.
The crash scene was a flurry of activity with firefighters still working to extricate one patient while Williamson checked on another.
Even before all of the patients were loaded into the ambulance, another call came in.
“Chief, I think everybody is accounted for. If you’re good, I’m going to head to the other one,” Williamson said.
Their work doesn’t stop when patients get to the hospital. Each ambulance has to be cleaned and restocked before it’s ready to hit the road again.
Ginny Jackson has been a paramedic for 15 years. She said the lack of resources in the Valley is taxing and sometimes means people are waiting for more than half an hour.
“This isn’t like food service where you’re late getting dinner. These are people who are calling an ambulance because they’re badly injured or very sick and their families are very scared,” Jackson said.
She described a CPR call that came in during her shift just a few days ago.
“I was coming from Talkeetna as Medic 4, the ambulance was coming from Lakes and that family did CPR for 35 minutes without an ambulance and I hate seeing families in that situation,” Jackson said.
Help is on the way, though. The Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted 6–1 to add 25 full-time medic positions. That will mean six staffed ambulances per shift, including one in Talkeetna where currently there are just on-call responders.
Williamson said having a paid crew in Talkeetna is crucial to improving response times. If there’s a crash on the Parks Highway, most ambulances have to make the trip from Wasilla or Palmer.
“You respond, you get there, you assess the patient and make a transport decision and the time that it physically takes to get to the hospital at Mat-Su Regional then that crew has to make ready and get turned to the service area. That’s about a three-hour turnaround time,” Williamson explained.
Acting Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley said about a dozen of the new positions are already filled with medics who previously held on-call positions. The department hopes to have every opening filled within the next couple weeks.
Williamson said, in the meantime, his crew is working with the resources they have in order to provide the best service possible.
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