A paramedics’ vehicle is like a rolling emergency room, says the head of county emergency medical services. (Courtesy photo)

Fire station’s second-floor addition would make room for personnel

  WHATCOM — A fifth Advanced Life Support medic unit for the county could be coming to Lynden.

  Local fire districts and departments provide Basic Life Support services by emergency medical technicians when they arrive as first responders to accidents and emergencies. ALS medics, arriving next or simultaneously, are trained and certified at a higher level.

  The Whatcom County Emergency Medical Services Oversight Board, following a long evaluation process from November 2019 through July 2020, recommends Lynden as the home base for the new unit, county EMS Manager Mike Hilley said.

  The big process of planning a new ALS unit began after county residents voted in 2016 in favor of a countywide EMS levy of 29.5 cents per $1,000 of property value. That levy set up a six-year strategic planning process, including the possible need for a new medic unit beyond the current four.

  That was based on anecdotal information, Hilley said, as paramedic units were getting busier and busier as the county population grows. The next step was gathering some hard data.

  “We went through a good year’s worth of work,” Hilley said. “We used consulting services of a (geographic information system) company that inputted data from the last several years of run-call volume around the county into a GIS modeling program.”

  The GIS program modeled 14 different scenarios and a couple of factors made it clear that Lynden was the ideal choice for a new ALS medic unit. The population of Lynden and its surrounding areas is growing, and call volume models showed that calls could increase 3% to 6% per year.

  “That new plan calls for a unit up in Lynden,” Hilley said. “It’s going to help us shorten some distances to the far reaches of the county, including Silver Lake and Sumas on down to Everson.”

  Using data from the past three years, the model showed that the highest call densities in the county pretty much line up with city centers. Taking road speeds into account, the goal is to have paramedic units reach the farthest ends of their jurisdictions in 10 to 12 minutes.

  The Oversight Board is in the middle stages of planning a new unit, and a variety of variables are involved, Hilley said. The ALS response will need equipment, personnel and a place to call home. The unit is planned to be housed at the Lynden Fire Station, which will be undergoing a major renovation in 2021, part of which will involve creating space on a second floor to house the new paramedic personnel.

  However, Hilley said, the most prominent factor in play right now is staffing. The unit will need paramedics, and new paramedics can’t hold down a full unit by themselves.

  “New medics have to work at least a couple of years with a senior medic before we kind of cut them loose,” Hilley said.

  Five new paramedics are set to graduate in January, and another new class will do so in March, and Hilley said he hopes the March class will provide some staffing for the new Whatcom unit. An ALS unit is staffed by two critical-care paramedics, who only go out on the more serious calls.

  Hilley described the ALS units around the county as rolling emergency rooms, complete with their own ambulances. He said having a paramedic unit operating out of a fire department can bring some major benefits to the firefighters working out of that department.

  Paramedics are firefighters, Hilley said, and they can provide rehab for firefighters who, for example, might work a fire for a long time. The paramedics can set up a rehab station and make sure firefighters are physically ready to continue fighting the fire.

  “It’s a nice little benefit of having the medics up there (in Lynden),” Hilley said.

  Lynden City Council member and North Whatcom firefighter Mark Wohlrab said Lynden would benefit greatly from having an ALS unit in town.

  “The closest one Lynden has right now is at the intersection of Smith and Hannegan (roads), which is at least a seven- or eight-minute run to town if we have an issue,” he said. “It’s necessary to get that unit to provide that level of service we’re all used to.”

  The other three existing units are two based in Bellingham and one at the corner of Grandview and Northwest roads in north Ferndale.

  Wohlrab said adding the unit to Lynden would cut Advanced Life Support response time by five minutes. “We’d have medical intervention at a high level and much quicker in our city, which would be amazing,” he said. 

  Having another unit not just in Lynden, but in the county overall, would bring faster response times across the board. 

  Wohlrab said if the unit at Smith and Hannegan is already out on a call, the next closest station to respond is the one at Ferndale. 

  “The reason we need this fifth unit is our other units are busy,” he said. “There are times when the closest ALS unit to Lynden is on Broadway Street in Bellingham. This would stand to be amazing. This would go to Blaine, Everson and Sumas, but it would be based in our city. When they’re in-house, we would really benefit from this.”

  Hilley said the Oversight Board hopes the unit can go in sometime in early 2022. The Whatcom County Council will see a recommendation sometime in early 2021, which will include a plan for the new unit, after various groups look at the plan and give their input.

  “It’s been a conversation for a long time,” Hilley said. “Nobody knew if or when or where it was needed, but I think we did a good amount of work here that shows that we need a little help here on the north end.”