As firefighters responded en masse to a trailer fire last week, one that killed a 56-year-old grandmother barricaded in her bedroom, other people in need of care ended up waiting for ambulances.
One man experiencing neck and back pain from an old injury waited about 38 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, according to information from Capital City Fire Rescue. Another person with an emergency had a fire engine crew arrive within three minutes to begin medical care, but it took 16 minutes to free an ambulance to transport him to the hospital.
CCFR Chief Richard Etheridge said the stacking of medical calls in this case was partly a result of staffing. Only two ambulances in Juneau are staffed 24/7. A third ambulance, staffed part-time in the summer, responded to the Lemon Creek Road trailer fire Friday night because the initial 911 call indicated three people were trapped inside the home. It turned out that only one person was barricaded inside the home, 56-year-old Doris Emanoff, who perished in the flames. The other two people at the scene were able to escape without injury.
“Pretty much everything that was staffed responded to that fire because it’s very labor intensive to try and perform a rescue of not just one, but up to three people,” Etheridge told the Empire on Monday.
Volunteer firefighters from the Douglas fire station handled the three emergency calls that came during the trailer fire, he said. The other two calls related to a man with a diabetic emergency and a man who reported difficulty breathing.
In the same time frame Friday night, CCFR also received a burn complaint from someone bothered by the smoke produced from their neighbor’s burning and a report of a tree fire at Dredge Lake that was extinguished naturally by the time firefighters arrived on scene.
Etheridge said the “stacking” of calls, which occurs when multiple emergencies happen at the same time, is a growing trend in Juneau that could be fixed with more staffing.
“When we do have a significant event like this, we throw all of our people at it that we can because you need them on scene,” he said. “But we’re seeing a trend more and more every year that when you have a significant call, there’s medical calls that stack up behind it. It’s not like when I first started where ... the calls were spaced out a little bit better. They’re piling up to where, like during this fire, I’ve got five calls that came in while we were operating on (the house fire). In the past, we weren’t seeing call volumes like that.”
CCFR is fielding twice as many calls it received a decade ago, with just about the same amount of equipment and staff. CCFR runs approximately 3,700 incidents per year, and this year is already hovering around 4,000. Back in 2000, that number was around 1,800. CCFR has about 30 paid firefighters and about 60 to 70 volunteers.
In order to staff an ambulance full-time, the city would have to fund six additional career firefighters since the work shift is 24 hours on followed by two days off. Etheridge said he’s asked the city about providing that funding before but to no avail, given the city’s multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
“We’ve asked and there’s just no money for it right now,” he said. “We’ve been facing budget cuts the last couple years, and we almost lost positions during the last round of budget (cuts).”
The two ambulances staffed full-time in Juneau are housed at the downtown station and the Glacier station by the airport. The downtown station also houses the third ambulance staffed 12 hours per day during the summer to help handle the influx of calls from tourists visiting the capital city. Two volunteer stations, the Douglas and Auke Bay stations, have their own ambulances.
“We have the equipment, we just need the people,” Etheridge said. “We don’t have the funding to put people in the apparatus.”
CCFR strives to have each 911 call processed in 90 seconds or less and to have crews en route to a call within 60 seconds. The desired drive time to an emergency is four to six minutes.
Call stacking means firefighters have to prioritize.
“Non-life threatening calls, people are going to have to wait,” the chief said. “We’ve only got so many resources.”
Members of the public can help with the problem by not abusing the 911 system, which contributes to the high call volume, Etheridge said.
“People call 911 for stubbed toes, spider bites, old injuries that are painful, ‘taxi rides’ to the ER or even people that live alone and EMS is one of their only contacts with people outside of their home,” he said.
The police and fire departments are still investigating the cause of Friday’s trailer fire.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.