Ambulance Shortages Hit Communities

Thursday, November 13th 2008, 11:05 am
By: News On 6

By Jennifer Pierce, NEWS 9

LEFLORE COUNTY -- Oklahomans are facing a crisis when it comes to their health. Cities and counties across the state are losing a critical emergency service.

In an emergency, your first call is to 911. From there, first responders are dispatched.

But depending on where you live in Oklahoma the response could take minutes, to half an hour and sometimes even longer, putting patients at risk.

"You have what they call the ‘golden hour'," LeFlore County Paramedic Keith Lickly said. "It means they have about one hour from the time of the accident to get to the appropriate care facility."

Lickly does his best to comfort patients and loved ones when he arrives.

"I would be mad too," Lickly said. "I definitely sympathize, but I try to explain to them the situation and sometimes it's not an easy one."

It's a situation that's only getting worse. Ambulance service is dying in parts of Oklahoma due to lack of funds; a service that is paid for through taxes.

"Rural Oklahomans in particular are losing their health care safety net," Bob Hawley said. "The local ambulance service in many places in Oklahoma, even many places in our county, is the closest health care that is available."

Hawley covers more than 2,000 square miles with just five ambulance stations.

"Our central station is located in Poteau," Hawley said.

He worries if more communities shut down their EMS service.

"That would place a burden on us and our taxpayers here that properly fund our ambulance services to have to respond to three additional counties," Hawley said. "That would bankrupt us in just a short amount of time."

The ambulance shortage is not only a local problem, but a statewide problem.

The state has lost 50 ambulance services since 2000. Ten of those communities never regained their service, and have to depend on already stretched responders like LeFlore County.

"We have a terrible crisis," Emergency Medical Services Director Shawn Rogers said.

Rogers said the Oklahoma State Board of Health took the problem to lawmakers and came back with $2 million.

"That's the first new money for EMS development since the 1970s; it's a huge step," Rogers said.

Back in LeFlore County, Hawley isn't as thrilled.

"I don't think the state coffers should be the place where funding a local service should be," Hawley said.

Hawley believes funding should come from the communities and would like to see residents and city leaders take a stand for safety.

"I think communities have to wake up and realize that their local EMS is just as important, if not more important, than having their fire or police department," Hawley said. "In our jurisdiction for example, we'll make more calls in one month than all 29 volunteer fire departments will make in the next three to five years."

But until changes are made to the system the calls will continue to come in and paramedics like Lickly will be there to help as much, and long as he can.

"When people need an ambulance they need an ambulance and we want to serve them," Lickly said.

A task force has recommended that communities form EMS co-ops. The $2 million lawmakers earmarked for EMS could possibly be used for this.