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For the week of November 8 through 14, 2000

Emergency crews prepare for Hailey hospital closure

Clogged highway could make transport slow

"Having [the hospital] in its new location will actually shorten the distance and travel time of south county patients and physicians…."

—St. Luke’s public relations manager, Kerry George

Express Staff Writer

With one emergency room set to replace the existing two in Hailey and Sun Valley, county agencies are brainstorming ideas for emergency transport of patients to the new St. Luke’s hospital, scheduled to open this month two miles south of Ketchum.

The plans are being discussed among medical personnel, police and fire departments.

County emergency medical technicians are training to become paramedics, in part to provide more care for south-county patients who will make longer ambulance trips to the new hospital once it opens Nov. 19. But that training is not scheduled to be completed until June or July. For the next six months, that means residents in the south county face the possibility of traveling the extra 10 miles to the new emergency room at the existing level of care.

Of the 1,000 ambulance calls the county responds to each year, 84 are extreme cases that would benefit from paramedic care, stated The Abaris Group, a consulting firm working with county emergency-care providers.

"We can’t say don’t open that hospital until we have paramedics," Wood River Fire and Rescue chief Bart Lassman said last week. When asked, however, whether he thinks the Hailey emergency room should remain open until the paramedics finish training, he said, "Yeah, I do. I think it would have been the right thing to do."

The sheriff’s department is working on a traffic management plan that may help ambulances move quickly along a congested Highway 75. The plan, however, does not specifically address the fact that heavy traffic prevents not just ambulances, but doctors and medical staff who live in the south county from easily reaching the hospital during emergencies.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said Thursday that whenever traffic is backed up and there’s an emergency accident on Highway 75, doctors and medical staff call his department requesting an escort to the hospital "because they can’t get there" to respond to the emergency.

Femling said his department declines the escort requests because it doesn’t have a large enough staff. He placed responsibility for solving the problem on St. Luke’s.

St. Luke’s says the problem is not as bad as some make it out to be.

"Any time that a member of our medical staff is needed at the [new] hospital, regardless of where they live, the same emergency transportation measures that have been used in the past (e.g., request from the County Sheriff’s office, etc.) will continue to be used," St. Luke’s public relations manager Kerry George stated in a written message.

George also stated emergency patients will "not need to wait for appropriate treatment to begin" because a physician will staff the new emergency room 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Services at the Hailey emergency room have been drastically cut back since 1998, George stated, which required cases of "special care, surgery or an admission to the hospital" to be transported to the Sun Valley emergency room. "Therefore having a facility in its new location will actually shorten the distance and travel time of south county patients and physicians when compared with the current situation."

Nevertheless, county emergency crews continue to work at improving emergency room access from the south county.

They say medical personnel and ambulances trying to reach the hospital through traffic during an emergency after Nov. 19 will benefit from a series of predetermined detours, and the cooperation of drivers to move off the roadway. Bad winter weather and the lack of roadway shoulders on some sections of the highway could complicate those options.

The sheriff’s office’s plan includes "implementing traffic control and alternative route plans as quickly as possible" and good communication both among emergency responders and between emergency responders and the public.

The sheriff’s office expects to work with the Idaho Transportation Department to install permanent detour signs at several highway locations, including the area between Bellevue and Woodside; areas adjacent to the Hailey airport; and areas north of Hailey to the intersection at Buttercup Road. The permanent detour signs would fold in half to hide them when they’re not needed.

To ease congestion, local radio stations would announce accidents and detours.

"We are trying to get more efficient on these traffic accidents," Femling said, because, "today, you block that traffic for 15 minutes and that could be a mile" of stopped vehicles.

In a worst case scenario—in which roads are severely blocked by traffic, bad weather or both—emergency responders may decide to have patients airlifted to either the new St. Luke’s hospital or to hospitals outside the county. Air ambulances would likely come from Pocatello, Boise, Twin Falls or Idaho Falls.

A 56-page, St. Luke’s-approved protocols document guides emergency medical technicians in making decisions about which form of transportation to use. The document gives technicians in the field power to activate an air ambulance without permission from a hospital.

Costs for services differ, with ground transportation fees set by the county at $9 per mile and fees for air ambulance transportation set by private companies at more than $60 per mile. By subscribing for air ambulance service at a rate of about $50 per year, some patients pay nothing for flights.

When asked what all of this means for the outcome of emergency patients, fire chief Lassman said, "I can’t answer that. The level of care we provide now is the level people expect."

He said planners are trying to answer "the political needs and realistic needs of [emergency medical] service." Political needs, he said, involve covering both "populous areas and outlying areas" with emergency service.


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