Wood River Fire & Rescue responded to a record number of medical calls in 2018, emblematic of a growing demand on emergency medical services throughout the county—even as departments struggle to recruit and retain qualified staff.

Concentrated in Hailey and Bellevue, Wood River answered 817 EMS calls last year—94 percent of all action, dwarfing the number of fire-specific responses, Chief Bart Lassman told the Blaine County commissioners during a preliminary Ambulance District budget hearing Tuesday. Lassman asked for $1,157,308 to provide ambulance coverage in Wood River’s service area for fiscal 2020—a 3 percent increase, the maximum annually allowed by law without running a levy—and a new ambulance to replace a sputtering older model.

“Our trend is doing nothing but going up every year,” said Assistant Chief Craig Aberbach, who is also the chief of the Hailey Fire Department. “And, in general, an overwhelming number of calls are for traumatic injuries.”

Those tend to require more manpower, according to Aberbach, and leave a lasting impact on those who respond. The strain of the job plus the economic pressures of living in the Wood River Valley have made it increasingly difficult for the department to find and keep first responders, Lassman told the commissioners. Recently, the department added a “pretty vigorous” employee assistance program, which includes counselling for both full-time and paid on-call staffers, Lassman said. And, it has opened recruiting to candidates only interested in the medical part of the fire and rescue job. The department currently has 29 paid on-call volunteers, and two are only medical.

“We live in an area where people have to work not just one job, but three or four jobs,” he said. “I’ve seen a decrease overall in the number of people volunteering. The chiefs are going out in ambulances—we’re doing everything we can to cover calls in a timely fashion.

“So, if you just want to be an EMT, we’ll put you to work.”

County, Ketchum move forward

After years of lamenting funding shortfalls, the city of Ketchum will “absolutely” be able to operate its ambulance service on the $1,164,331 it requested from the Blaine County Ambulance District on Tuesday, interim Chief Tom Bowman told the board.

That’s a 3 percent increase over fiscal 2019.

“We’re going to make it work,” Bowman said.

Ketchum responded to 698 medical calls in 2018, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the Fire Department’s total volume. Unlike Wood River, it’s fully staffed, with 45 paid on-call volunteers, 11 full-time personnel, an assistant chief, clerk and Bowman himself. Two full-timers could leave along with the city’s contract with the Ketchum Rural Fire Protection District, according to the city’s proposed budget; it plans to spend $2,067,389 on the department in fiscal 2020.

Ketchum was the most recent recipient of an ambulance paid from county coffers. The newest member of its fleet went into service in February, Bowman said.

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