The Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s commission approved and signed a letter to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors expressing strong concern and disagreement with how the county Emergency Management Department is interpreting the “closest available unit” policy. Rhonda Andrewson (center), commission president, is the first signee. Her colleagues (from left) Larry Donahoo (sitting), vice president, Ralph Hoetger, Henry Sawicki and Jerry Buchanan, treasurer, await their turn to sign. This policy affects whether the Idyllwild Fire or American Medical Response ambulance is dispatched first to emergency medical incidents. Photo by JP Crumrine

Letter urges quick change

The Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s commission has thrown down the gauntlet over Riverside County’s failure or unwillingness to implement the policy of dispatching the closest-available unit to medical emergencies on the Hill.

Following through on their promise to take some action in response to Riverside County’s policy, which states, “For purposes of closest ambulance, the AMR [American Medical Response] Pine Cove Unit and IFPD ambulances are considered equal distance,” on Thursday, May 31, commissioners unanimously approved and signed a letter to the county’s board of supervisors challenging this policy.

IFPD, the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency and AMR negotiated a policy prescribing the dispatch of the closest-available ambulance to medical emergencies on the Hill (outside of Idyllwild). AMR has provided IFPD with GPS units to identify where ambulances are. These same units are in all AMR units.

The commission feels betrayed because IFPD is clearly closer to Mountain Center — and any possible incident east or west of there — than the AMR unit stationed on Franklin Drive in Pine Cove, near the entrance to Foster Lake.

Fire Chief Patrick Reitz told the commission that this caveat was “… never discussed” in the negotiations and “… only on the next day when the policy was mailed was it there. It was a bait and switch.”

Commission President Rhonda Andrewson felt strongly and said, “We are dealing with life issues. This is an issue we’ve dealt with ad nauseam. This dance has gone on and on.”

Battalion Chief Mark LaMont agreed and said he has been arguing with the county for 15 years about it. Then he shared an Automatic Aid Agreement between IFPD and the county from May 2000 where it states, “It is understood that all plans, which deal with emergency response shall adhere as closely as practical to the ‘closest unit’ concept which forms the basis for this agreement.”

“Countless delays of critical equipment and personnel to incidents wherein the EMS system has been called on throughout the mountain plateau have been brought forward by us to the attention of REMSA and the Riverside Emergency Management Department,” the board wrote the supervisors. “These unnecessary and life threatening delays must be mitigated immediately.

“In just the last year alone, our IFPD Administration and Staff have offered the services of the closest ambulance on several occasions only to be told to ‘stand down’ to ‘not respond’ or that these border areas are ‘not in the IFPD jurisdiction,’ the commission proclaimed.

The commission wants to hear back within 30 days, although there was some discussion to set a 10-day limit. The letter warns the board that every day that passes before the policy is changed risks the safety of locals and visitors to the Hill.

Former IFPD and U.S. Forest Service Fire Chief Norm Walker referred to a previous meeting from 2010. “Bruce Barton [county EMD director] in this room talking to a packed house said, ‘My bottom line is positive patient outcome.’ This is not positive patient outcome, and I don’t know where that Bruce Barton went.”

Commissioner Larry Donahoo agreed. As a former paid-call firefighter, he remembers when this issue never or rarely came up. “Through the years, I’ve seen deterioration … We’ve got to fix this, but it won’t be quick.”

At a special meeting, originally planned to discuss future actions to raise revenue, a large turnout of residents strongly and vocally supported the commission’s direction.

Andrewson stressed, “This is a huge cause for our community.” She encouraged people to go to a supervisors board meeting, in response to question from Lance Fogle, one of many citizens present, who inquired, “Can the public play a role?”