LA PINE — The emergency calls in the La Pine Rural Fire Protection District have increased at such an alarming rate that more than 600 times last year, crews were forced to respond to multiple emergencies that arrived at the same time.
But the district is so short staffed that in that same period, 183 emergency calls came in when no one was available to respond for at least 30 minutes.
“There are multiple times a week that there are no firefighters and no paramedics in La Pine to respond to a call because they are already on other alarms,” said Kyle Lohner, president of the La Pine Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 3387.
The situation has prompted the district to seek a local operations levy to pay for increased staffing and resources.
The current levy has not been changed since 1998. The proposed levy, which would cost taxpayers $0.64 out of every $1,000 of assessed property valuation, would ensure adequate staffing to meet the needs of the growing La Pine community, which has experienced a 56% increase in emergency calls over the past decade, the fire protection district said in a release.
The fire district has already filed the necessary paper work and the levy will appear on the ballot in the May 16 election.
Ethan Axten, 26, has worked as a firefighter/paramedic for the rural fire protection district for a little over a year. He said he and his crew are overwhelmed by the amount of calls. It isn’t uncommon to be called into work on a day off, he said.
“Sometimes we do get run dry, like we are just running so many calls you don’t sleep for two days straight and you feel a little underprepared to be able to give the public your best effort,” Axten said.
Axten said sometimes, when crew members are busy on calls, the station could be staffed by one lieutenant and one student, requiring a trainee to hop on potentially serious calls.
Once, Axten was called in on his day off and sent in ambulance transportation ride instead of his lieutenant, who stayed behind at the station and wound up having to put out a car fire by himself.
The lack of resources and ever growing number of calls sometimes has Axten worried.
“It’s a scary thought. My parents live in Bend, and I personally wouldn’t want them to live this far away from the hospital,” he said of his district. “And with the resources we have, I’m more comfortable with them living in Bend.”
Lohner said he worries about the burden the lack of resources places on firefighters. “That also creates a situation where my guys are working 24 hours a day,” he said. “On the road, back and forth to the hospital. Which is what we are paid to do, but there comes a point where there are too many calls and too few people to run them.”
Lohner said the levy would provide a good start to get more bodies on more calls, but it is not exactly the best case scenario.
Lohner said he wants to see three more crews working per day. The operations levy would add nine new firefighter/paramedics, which is three more people each day, or one and a half crews available per day.
“This will allow us to have someone available when someone calls 911 currently,” Lohner said. “We are here to serve you, and this allows us to do that. This allows us to make sure that when you call 911 someone shows up in a timely fashion.”
Robin Adams, the fire district’s board director, said currently the district’s calls are 80% medical calls, often requiring crews to drive patients to St. Charles Bend, which takes crews out of the district for over two hours. Those calls have more than doubled in the last three years, the district said.
When this happens, there is the option to request mutual assistance from Bend, Sunriver or Crescent, but that option could also be problematic, Adams said.
“But then, because both Crescent and Sunriver only have one crew on at a time, then that leaves their district completely uncovered, if they are coming up to our district to help out,” Adams said.
Assistant Fire Chief Dan Daugherty said while he and his crew are thankful for the mutual aid agreement it has with the surrounding communities, it is not exactly the ideal situation, especially when there are serious events like major structure fires, severe car accidents or medical emergencies.
“We don’t like to rely on our mutual aid partners. We are thankful that they are there, we are very lucky to have them but, A) we can’t count on them for a swift response time, and B) we feel like the community and those that are calling for help deserve a quick response.”
Daugherty said another thing to consider when thinking about a new levy is that La Pine is located in an area that the state has designated as being at high risk of wildfires.
“A good portion of our properties, even downtown here in La Pine, are considered to be high hazard, or in the extreme category,” Daugherty said. “We have plans to respond to those, and we also have plans to mitigate that potential. But when it comes it comes.”
The rate of $0.64 per thousand seems a little low. That is especially true considering the average home price in Lapine of $380,000.
Lapine fire district covers about 117 square miles while the ambulance service area is about 700 square miles serving a population of 25,000 folks. The district is the furthest from a hospital in the state with the longest transport times also. Round trip to St. Charles ER is about 60 miles and can take 2/3 hours depending on volume at the ER.
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