In a 48-hour shift last week at Orcas Fire and Rescue, responders handled 15 calls that included a drowning, a trail rescue and a house fire as well as assisting the state bomb squad in detonating old material found in the rock quarry. Four of the emergencies were back to back.
“We clear for one incident and then respond to another,” said Fire Chief Scott Williams.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the call volume spikes dramatically at OIFR. Overall calls have been increasing by 100 annually for the past few years, and 25 percent of those are overlapping. To date, OIFR has responded to 789 calls in 2019 compared to 736 at this time last year. Patients are a mix of locals, including part-time residents who are back for the summer as well as visitors to the island.
“I came here 15 years ago and I’m treating the same patients who are now 15 years older – as am I – and their needs are expanding,” said Battalion chief and paramedic Patrick Shepler.
Walk-in patients also bring added work to the department. Without an emergent care facility on the island, many people walk into the fire department during the day as well as after hours. Shepler urges islanders to call 911 instead because if responders are gone on a call, there will be no one available at the station to assist a patient.
“They are so afraid of being embarrassed when we show up or they don’t want to inconvenience us. But we are here to ensure you are safe,” he said. “People have a misunderstanding of how we fit in.”
Another obstacle for treatment is trying to find a home that is not easily accessible due to overgrown trees, hidden addresses or unmarked roads. Shepler says it’s critical to be proactive in ensuring your home is visible.
OIFR has seven fire stations on the island but only Eastsound’s is staffed full-time with one firefighter and one paramedic who work in four-day shifts. The department is also supported by 60 on-call volunteers, who are one-third firefighters, one-third Emergency Medical Technicians and one-third dually trained.
“There’s no guarantee if a volunteer is going to be on island, so the career staff have to triage what’s going on across the island,” Williams said.
Added Shepler: “Their commitment to the job is amazing. They drop everything at a moment’s notice to help someone who in many cases they know personally. It carries an added emotional trauma.”
Orcas EMTs are also trained to provide more advanced medical response to assist paramedics as there isn’t a hospital nearby.
“We really push them to have skills that they wouldn’t have on the mainland,” Shepler said.
The most common summer calls are for people who have tripped, fallen from a tree or ladder, or stumbled while hiking due to the increase in outdoor activity.
“Falls are a common pathway to infirmity and death in the elderly,” Shepler said, noting that sometimes that kind of call reveals additional medical issues. “Because we don’t have a hospital on island and most of our patients don’t go to a hospital unless they need to, we are very thorough. My saying is: ‘Five minutes to know what is wrong with you, and 40 to know what is not wrong.’”
Emergency personnel will also stay with a patient for a longer time if a helicopter is not readily available for transport.
“There are six helicopters working up and down I-5 so it just isn’t always available,” Shepler said. “Many times we will be with patients for hours.”
Williams said that additional scene time is another stressor for volunteer responders.
“It takes away from their family and job,” he said. “We are providing the same services as one agency for half the budget as San Juan, which has two agencies (fire and EMS),” Williams said.