Wednesday, November 5, 2008

County looks to future of ambulance district

Possible changes include a standardized fleet and review of first-responder policy

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County officials are considering a new plan that would direct the closest paramedics from either of the county's ambulance providers to respond to emergencies, even if the call comes from outside their district.

The "all-call dispatch plan," discussed by the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday, would also include the closest ambulance units, County Administrator Mike McNees explained.

The two entities that operate under ambulance contracts with the county—the Ketchum Fire Department and Wood River Fire and Rescue—have already begun to implement the all-call policy, McNees said.

McNees made his remarks during a lengthy discussion of the county's ambulance district policies. Acting in their dual role as the board of the Blaine County Ambulance District, the commissioners also discussed standardizing the district's ambulance fleet and issues related to how separate ambulance services provided by the cities of Hailey and Sun Valley should fit into the county's overall ambulance service.

The commissioners made no decisions. Rather, they will discuss the topics during the coming months.

Next January, the Ketchum Fire Department is scheduled to purchase a new ambulance. The new unit will replace an ambulance that the department has been operating for 16 years, described by McNees as "barely breathing."

Before the unit is replaced, county leaders hope to come up with a standardized model that dictates new ambulances as Blaine County units. Both Ketchum and Wood River have come up with initial specifications that will be merged in the coming months.

The standardized ambulance fleet will also mean that equipment will be carried in such a way that any paramedic will know where important items are located, even if the ambulance is not from his or her own department.

"You don't have to spend three minutes opening every door," McNees explained.

Among the other issues discussed Tuesday is the ambulance district's billing policy, which currently bills patients the same whether it's an emergency or non-emergency transport. A possible wrinkle in that policy is that doctors and the hospital often ask for non-emergency ambulance transports, and the patient is stuck with the bill, Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman pointed out.

These patients "may not know that there is a cost that will be incurred," he said.

Another topic discussed by the commissioners—acknowledged by McNees to be a "sensitive subject"—is the policy guiding how ambulance services provided by Hailey and Sun Valley fit into the overall emergency response picture. Suggestions have been made by some local emergency officials, including Blaine County Emergency Medical Director Dr. Keith Sivertson, to establish a set of operational protocols guiding the first-responder policy.

As the lead emergency medical director in the county, Sivertson is developing recommendations for how Hailey and Sun Valley work with the Ketchum and Wood River departments on first response.

"He has some very significant concerns," McNees said. "He definitely wants to make some recommendations."

Though apparently supporting such a discussion, Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said the topic should be considered with everyone in attendance, including Hailey and Sun Valley.

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