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Alarm Box: We're much more than just a fire department

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Ashland residents about the types of services Ashland Fire & Rescue (AF&R) provides to the community. There were a lot of questions regarding the department’s ambulance service. Here are the answers to some of their questions:

Q: How and why did AF&R come to have an ambulance service?

A: The city of Ashland purchased the local ambulance service, Ashland Life Support, in 1996. The decision to acquire the ambulance service involved many factors. Primarily, as the department was already responding to medical emergencies, it made operational sense to transport these patients to the hospital.

Q: Do most fire departments transport patients to the hospital?

A: Generally, fire departments do not get involved in ambulance transportation. While most fire departments respond to Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls within their jurisdiction, a private ambulance company will generally transport an ill or injured patient to the hospital.

Q: If most fire departments do not transport, why do we?

A: 1. It provides better service to the community — statistics show that AF&R continues to provide exceptional response times to our citizens (for life-threatening conditions, time is everything). Additionally, our commitment to quality service is evident in the personnel we employ, the training they receive and the tools they are given to perform their job.

2. It maximizes the productivity of on-duty firefighters — we must have a minimum number of firefighters ready to respond to fire calls on a 24/7 basis. But as emergency medical calls make up a majority of our responses, it makes sense to utilize our firefighters to their utmost capacity.

3. It generates revenue for the city coffers — the ambulance service provides over a million dollars a year in revenue for the general fund.

Q: As stated above, if AF&R must have a minimum number of firefighters on duty to be available for fire calls, what happens when a couple of your ambulances are busy transporting patients?

A: In the fire service, we refer to this as an acceptable level of risk. All public safety organizations must balance the services provided with available funding. While there is a chance that a fire will break out while a portion of the on-duty Firefighter/Paramedics are handling an EMS call, we have contingency plans in place to help minimize the impact of fewer firefighters arriving at a fire scene.

Q: If AF&R has ambulances, why do I often see the fire engine at a medical emergency?

A: To ensure the fastest response we dispatch the closest unit to provide medical care until an ambulance can arrive. If a fire engine arrives first, the crew can provide Advanced Life Support Care until the ambulance arrives. In the fire service this is commonly called a “tiered response”. Additionally, on serious calls (such as heart attacks), the engine will respond with the ambulance to provide additional paramedics.

Q: How are the ambulance services regulated in Jackson County?

A: Jackson County is divided into three Ambulance Service Areas (ASA). AF&R has been granted the right to provide ambulance services in ASA #3. Our ASA covers about 600 square miles of Southern Oregon (basically the Interstate 5 corridor from Talent south to the border). The assignment of an ASA is generally for a five-year period and is granted by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

Today, the department responds to approximately 4,200 calls a year. About 75 percent of those calls are for the sick and injured.

Chris Chambers is forest division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. The Alarm Box, a column with local public safety information, appears triweekly in the Tidings.

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