Aging ambulance needs more than a quick fix

Most of the cars on Shaw Island are newer than our 1991 ambulance. While the oldest cars can be held together with baling wire and a tolerance for the imperfect, the Shaw Island Aid Unit is asking islanders to donate to a fund for a new ambulance. Shaw Island Fire and Aid has a small district operating budget which virtually prohibits the purchase of new vehicles without assistance. The cost of a new ambulance is more than the district’s annual revenue.

Helen Riggins has been with Emergency Medical Services for 17 years and now leads the unit. When she started, the average was 12 call-outs a year, she said. In 2014, there were seven calls in one month. Now, EMTs are paged out an average of 24 times a year, often resulting in a helicopter or alternative transportation taking patients off-island to a hospital’s emergency room. In 2011, the EMTs responded to a mass casualty incident of 44 people, a hay wagon accident that made national news, and was one of the largest accidents in San Juan County, Helen said.

The seven EMTs on Shaw are among those in the state who receive the highest level of training due to our remote location and lack of other medical options. Shaw’s EMTs are state and some are even nationally certified and must maintain their skills and keep up with new techniques and technology. The Aid Team started with First Responders and an aid vehicle (Charlotte) that while equipped, technically wasn’t supposed to transport patients. An ambulance can transport patients but must meet additional requirements, such as carrying at least one EMT, Helen said.

Since Shaw Island has no health clinic or doctor’s office, the ambulance is our ER, the first line of service for residents. The equipment available onboard is vital to providing the assistance our EMT’s have been trained to provide. In the 24 years since the aid team’s formation, the team has had four used ambulances that were replaced by others due to mechanical problems, out-of-date equipment, and safety issues. The ex-military ambulance, built in 1991 and sporting 78,000 miles, is prone to mechanical failures that can put it out of service for days at a time.

A new ambulance could be in service for approximately 20 years. It would allow the aid unit to retain the current ambulance as a reserve and be available for if needed transportation off island as well as local and county EMS training. In addition, the funds now used for major repairs on aging ambulances could be used for updating equipment not installed in the new ambulance, as well as provide continuing education for Shaw’s EMTs. The board called for bids from three manufacturers. The quotes received averaged $200,000 for an ambulance and equipment.

Fund-raising breaks out with a Pancake Breakfast from 8-10 a.m. April 1 at the community building. There will be information available on Airlift Northwest and the Island Air Ambulance. Beyond the pancakes, donations can be sent to San Juan County FD#5, at P.O. Box 432, Shaw Island, WA 98286 with “ambulance” in the comment line. For more information, contact Deanna Shannon at 360-468-4560 or Helen Riggins at 360-298-0995.

— Contributed by Sharon Wootton & the Shaw Island Aid Unit