Commission ponders county chopper

After hearing public concerns over slow emergency response times, the county Fire Commission on Tuesday launched a discussion on public versus private medical response services.

The seven-member appointed body also considered the potential advantage of the county’s having its own helicopter for emergencies rather than contracting mostly with island tour companies.

The Kaua‘i Fire Department provides first-responder service for every call, Kaua‘i Fire Chief Robert Westerman said. The state-contracted American Medical Response ambulances meet the firefighters at the scene to provide emergency medical services and transport any victims to the hospital.

The commissioners said they want to learn more about the possible benefits of bringing medical response into the fire department.

“It seems a logical step in the future,” commission Chair George Simpson said.

The commission should consider discussing the possibility of the county establishing “fire-based EMS,” he said, a system where the fire department has its own ambulances and provides emergency medical services.

Westerman said the public and private services can coexist, and often do in many locales throughout the nation.

But first the economics, along with the pros and cons, must be studied, he said, adding that the county would need to hire a consultant to do such an evaluation.

The county charter would also need to be amended for the department to provide emergency medical services, Westerman said, because it currently only calls for first-responder service.

The island’s population has outpaced the county’s expansion of its fire department, according to the chief.

“The growth curve has caught up with us,” Westerman said.

He illustrated his point with a hypothetical example based on the growing trend here over the past couple years.

A call comes in for an injured hiker on the Kalalau Trail on the North Shore. An engine and a utility truck respond from Princeville.

En route, another call comes in for a near drowning at Hanalei. One of the two vehicles splits off to respond there.

A third call comes in for a man having a stroke in Ha‘ena. The Kapa‘a station is called in for assistance. But Kapa‘a, which fields 60 percent of the county’s total calls annually, has no units available to send to the North Shore.

The Lihu‘e station, the next closest, is then asked to assist. It sends a crew, but then remains stretched thin should another call come in.

The whole scenario would be even more challenging to tackle should any of these calls have been fires, in which case the engine and utility truck could not have split off, Westerman said.

AMR, which has two fewer units, faces the same battle, the chief added.

A new fire station in Kealia is some two years from completion at which time the existing Kapa‘a station would need to be relocated to the district’s southern border and a fire station in Kilauea is years away, Westerman said.

The fire department is in the process of updating its strategic plan, the chief said.

Tied to the talk of fire-based medical response was discussion on the county’s having its own helicopter for emergencies.

The commissioners said if the fire department had its own chopper, response times to the North Shore in particular would be significantly faster and possibly make the difference in saving someone’s life.

The county hired a consultant to study the matter, including cost benefit analyses and rescue versus medevac helicopters. The report is expected by the end of the month, Westerman said.

A helicopter equipped for rescue missions and able to provide emergency medical services would cost about $1.7 million, the chief said. Plus, it would cost some $250,000 annually for maintenance and roughly $175,000 for operation.

The county currently contracts with a private aerial tour company at the rate of $975 per hour to provide emergency helicopter services for about 100 calls annually, Westerman said.

Commissioner Guy Croydon said he suspects there would be a lot of beneficial opportunities for the county to have a helicopter, including police use.

The commission, which meets at 2 p.m. the first Monday of each month at the Historic County Building, expects to hear the consultant’s report at its November meeting.

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