Earlier this week, Hoonah had a fire in its ambulance during a training exercise. Thorne Bay blew a rod in the engine of its ambulance en route to a patient.
These anecdotes prove the "screaming need" to replace aging emergency equipment in Southeast, said Bobbi Leichty, executive director of the Southeast Region Emergency Medical Services Council in Sitka.
Now 144 mostly small, rural Alaska communities will receive new life-saving equipment, ranging from oxygen bottles and automatic defibrillators to ambulances, thanks to $6.4 million in federal, state, local and Rasmuson Foundation funds.
The initiative, called Code Blue, was proposed by health professionals two years ago to help local emergency medical squads who were responding in failing ambulances, with outdated equipment and poor communications technology. The initiative was coordinated by six regional EMS agencies and the state Department of Health and Social Services.
Funds will provide 25 ambulances and 29 emergency response and transport vehicles. The initiative also will help modernize communications equipment and decrease the number of "dead spots" where emergency radio communication fails.
Seven of the ambulances are coming to Southeast to Metlakatla, Wrangell, Gustavus, Kake, Hoonah, Thorne Bay and Yakutat, said
Leichty. The ambulances cost $150,000 each. They have diesel engines, are engineered for rough terrain and are "Alaska-proofed," Leichty said, meaning they have been given extra protection for rust and salt. They come complete with gurneys.
Code Blue includes $2.75 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development funds, sponsored by Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Leichty said. Ketchikan and Sitka qualified for communication funds.
"Our emergency services in Sitka can't talk from one end of the town to the other because of the terrain," she said, "so they were awarded $115,000."
Ketchikan received $30,000 to upgrade communications for similar reasons, while Craig was awarded $100,000 to upgrade its police department dispatch system to pick up a clearer signal.
Funds also are coming to Southeast for a variety of other equipment, from a gurney for Hydaburg to a CPR training manikin for Kake. Angoon is gaining four hand-held VHF radios and a VHF base station radio. Coffman Cove is getting a 911 system and four handheld VHFs. Craig will receive an adult intubation training manikin. Haines gets VHF radios plus a spinal immobilization kit.
Code Blue training grants have not been announced yet, Leichty said.
"Larger communities can afford these things, but smaller ones can't. Providing this equipment to the mostly-volunteer forces in small communities shows we appreciate what they're doing," said Mark Johnson, chief of the EMS section at the state Department of Health and Social Services.
"Code Blue started as an analysis of crisis with rural volunteer ambulance forces across the state. Many of the problems had to do with aging and obsolete equipment and not having money to replace it. There were also issues with recruitment and getting training to remote areas," Johnson said.
"This $6.4 million means the statewide EMS system will be able to do a better job of providing life-saving services. Basically, it makes the state a little safer for all of us."