Fire department faces more calls, more off-island transports than in years past

Vashon’s fire department faced a record number of medical-related calls last year and transported more people than ever to hospitals on the mainland, according to recently released statistics.

Officials with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) say responders were able to handle the record number of emergencies, but they’re keeping a careful eye on the call volume, suspecting that an aging population on Vashon may mean more calls become the new normal.

“The high numbers concern me, but I’m not at the point where I think we need to address it. I want to look at mid-period 2013, to see if the trend is continuing,” said VIFR Chief Hank Lipe.

After experiencing a slight dip in call volume in 2011 — something Lipe called an anomaly — VIFR responded to 1,485 fire and medical calls in 2012, an increase of more than 200 calls over the year before. It was the agencies’ second busiest year on record; in 2006, an unusually high number of fires contributed to a total of 1,516 calls.

While calls for fires were slightly up last year, at about 60 more than the year before, the high call volume was largely driven by medical emergencies. According to the newly released numbers, Vashon responders answered 1,130 medical-related calls, the highest number ever and about 160 more than the year before.

“It’s huge,” Lipe said of the jump in calls. “You usually don’t see a down-drop like you did in 2011 and a spike back up the next year. That’s unusual for me to see.”

Perhaps more significant than the increase in calls, Lipe said, is that more and more medical emergencies seem to be resulting in ferry transports, when VIFR responders take patients in ambulances to off-Island hospitals.

The number of ferry transports has more than doubled since 2009, when VIFR took 332 patients on the ferry. Transports jumped in the past year from 552 in 2011 to 685 in 2012.

The high number of transports is significant, officials say, because each time VIFR takes a patient on the ferry, one ambulance and one or more responders are off-island for about three hours. Simultaneous transports can leave the island thin on staff.

“As our call volume goes up, our time out of service goes up,” said Marc Brownell, battalion chief of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) at VIFR.

But even with a rising number of ferry transports, officials say the department is keeping up and maintaining good response times. Average response times for fires remained at about eight minutes and 15 seconds in 2011 and 2012, and average response times for medical-related calls increased slightly, from eight minutes and 15 seconds in 2011 to about eight minutes and 30 seconds last year.

Lipe called the response times impressive.

“The island is so spread out, to actually stay that close is pretty good,” he said.

Officials at the fire station credit changes to the volunteer program in recent years with bolstering VIFR’s abilities and keeping response times low.

Volunteers, once more loosely organized, are now asked to work scheduled shifts and pull more hours. They also get more training and oversight than the department once provided, and staffing the Bennedsen House in Burton has improved response to some incidents south of Vashon town.

VIFR Assistant Chief George Brown said that a couple of years ago the department could usually handle only two emergency calls — one requiring a ferry transport and one not requiring transport. Now, Brown said, the department can almost always handle two calls requiring transports and one not requiring a transport, and at times it can field up to four emergencies at once.

“With the increase of transports and the increase of calls, our staffing model stayed relatively the same, and we’re able to keep up,” Brown said. “We’re allocating our resources in a more efficient manner.”

In fact, Brown said, the higher-level training and oversight may be contributing to the higher number of ferry transports. As responders acquire more skills, he said, they may be more likely to ask that patients be taken to an off-Island hospital.

“I think we’re … getting people to the right place rather that letting people say, ‘I’m fine, I just want to stay home,’” he said.

Officials say the numbers could also reflect an aging population on Vashon. The latest U.S. Census statistics show that the median age on Vashon jumped from about 44 in 2000 to 50 in 2010.

Brown said he thought VIFR’s call numbers reflected a national trend for fire departments.

“I think society is getting older, and the older we get, the more needs we have,” Brown said.

Brownell agreed and said he thinks the trend will continue as the baby boomer generation ages. “Globally, this is the new reality. EMS calls are going to continue to go up,” he said.

Officials are quick to note that while they’re proud of the progress VIFR has made, Vashon’s unique situation as an island means its call volume must be met. Most fire departments on the mainland are able to call upon neighboring cities for help when they get extra busy. But being self-sufficient has pushed VIFR to use its staff and volunteer forces as much as possible. Even with a bolstered program, it can still take Vashon responders up to 20 minutes to get to the farthest reaches of the island.

“I think we are very creative and work very hard to manage out resources,” Brownell said. “I believe we manage our resources better than any agency in the country.”

Lipe said he’ll be keeping a careful eye on VIFR’s call volume to see if last year’s spike was an anomaly or turns into a trend. Should calls continue to rise, he said, the department may need to recruit more volunteers or perhaps ask the community for funding to meet the higher demand.

“The response system today is doing its job; we’re not at capacity,” Lipe said. “The problem is I’m not sure where capacity is.”



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