Washington district will lose transport license without more volunteers

"We're failing miserably," said Miles Burmeister, chief of District 11, which has until Sept. 12 to submit a corrective action plan


Emily Fitzgerald
The Chronicle

PE ELL, Washington — Pe Ell-based Lewis County Fire District 11 is desperately seeking volunteers willing to drive an ambulance or volunteer as an emergency medical technician during the daytime as it fights to avoid losing its emergency medical service transport license.

District 11, which serves the Pe Ell, Doty and Dryad area, doesn't have the staff available to provide 24/7 EMS coverage with at least an 80% response rate to calls, which is a requirement for maintaining its EMS transport license, according to District 11 Chief Miles Burmeister.

Pe Ell's District 11 doesn't have the staff available to provide 24/7 EMS coverage with at least an 80% response rate to calls, which is a requirement for maintaining its EMS transport license.
Pe Ell's District 11 doesn't have the staff available to provide 24/7 EMS coverage with at least an 80% response rate to calls, which is a requirement for maintaining its EMS transport license. (Photo/Lewis County Fire District #11)

"I've got four EMTs to do that and every one of those four has a job. Do the math, we're failing miserably," Burmeister said at an emergency community meeting at the District 11 station on Monday to address the EMS situation. "When we respond, we do great. When we do not, it's not so good."

The state Department of Health received a complaint against District 11's EMS network earlier this year, prompting the DOH to send Burmeister a letter in early May informing him that District 11 had until Sept. 12 to submit a corrective action plan or risk losing its EMS license.

"Our department, we have to pick up those numbers. And to do that, I have to have EMTs and ambulance drivers that are available during the day. And if people don't want to volunteer for that, we'll probably lose our ambulance service," Burmeister said.

District 11 does contract with private medical transportation company American Medical Response for supplemental EMS transport coverage, so most calls in District 11's coverage area do get answered even when District 11 is unavailable — but that existing contract depends on District 11 having a valid EMS transport license.

"If we lose our ambulance service, a possibility is that AMR pulls out also, and there will be no EMS coverage out here whatsoever. None," said Burmeister. "Nobody wants that. I don't think AMR will do that, but that is a possibility."

Chief Rich Underdahl of Winlock-based Lewis County Fire District 15 is helping District 11 put together a corrective action plan to bring its EMS response numbers up.

"We're looking, we're recognizing the problem, we're going to address the problem, we're going to take the necessary steps to get this corrective action plan in place so that we don't lose the transport license," said Underdahl to the firehouse packed with concerned Pe Ell residents and fire personnel from neighboring districts on Monday.

Monday's meeting was a required step in creating the corrective action plan, Underdahl said.

Once District 11 submits the plan, it has a year to show the DOH that it has started implementing that plan.

"I don't have to finish it, but I have to start it," Burmeister clarified.

The biggest obstacle preventing District 11 from increasing its EMS response rate is a lack of willing volunteers, he said.

"We are willing to train anybody that wants to be trained ... You don't have to be on the fire side if you just want to drive the ambulance, but we need help. We cannot do this with what we have," he said.

When asked about the possibility of hiring paid EMTs and ambulance drivers, District 11 staff explained that District 11's budget, as "bare bones" as it was, wouldn't cover it.

A "top-tier" hire would cost roughly $130,000 total, which includes a $75,000 annual salary and a benefits package, Underdahl said. He added that District 11 could try hiring an ambulance driver or EMT for less or offer stipend pay for personnel from other districts to work a couple shifts at District 11.

"The daytime is the roughest time because everyone is working," he said.

Community members also asked about the possibility of an EMS levy, which Underdahl and District 11 staff said was not on the table right now, as the district missed the deadline to put something on the November ballot, but could be in an upcoming year.

"At this point in time though, we're looking at just a simple corrective action plan," Underdahl said.

Other suggestions included partnering with neighboring districts to create a joint EMS agency, which would require a ballot item.

The most-immediate solution would simply be to recruit more volunteers, who could then be trained and certified in-house.

District 11 needs at least two EMTs and two ambulance drivers to improve its EMS call response rates, according to Burmeister.

When asked if he's heard from any interested volunteers since the DOH letter arrived in May, Burmeister said, "I haven't had a single application here, but that is what tonight is about."

But District 11 isn't the only fire district in Lewis County struggling with volunteers: Several local historically all-volunteer districts like District 15 and rural Chehalis/ Adna-based District 6 have shifted toward paid models as volunteer numbers have decreased; the most recent being Packwood-based District 10, which Underdahl said is currently looking into hiring paid personnel to supplement its dwindling volunteer force.

A clear solution to Pe Ell's EMS problem wasn't apparent Monday night, but the strong showing from Pe Ell's residents was a strong indicator that the Pe Ell community would help its fire district come up with a plan.

"I'm very grateful to see this many people. ... I'm very impressed and so I want to extend my thanks, just as myself, on you coming here today and showing your support and then your concern," Underdahl said.

A livestream of Monday's meeting is available on District 11's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Lewis-County-Fire-District-11-Pe-Ell-WA-161359656071.

District 11 can be reached via the Facebook page, by email at lcfd11trainingofficer@gmail.com or by phone at 360-291-2906.

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