Naches firefighters struggle to keep up with medical calls

Volunteers able to respond to EMS calls down by 30% due to state COVID-19 vaccine mandate

NACHES, Wash. — The Naches Fire Department is struggling to keep up with emergencies because 30% of its firefighters can no longer respond to medical calls under the state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“A few times here within the last few weeks, we’ve had some calls where we didn’t have anybody available,” Chief Alan Baird said. “We might have one person show up, but that’s not enough to do anything.”

The Naches Fire Department does not have any full-time, paid firefighters and relies solely on about 30 volunteers — who can only respond to calls when they’re not at work or dealing with other obligations.

Baird said about 30% of the volunteers have been granted religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate. He said they can still respond to fires and drive emergency vehicles, but cannot have direct contact with patients.

“We didn’t fire anybody or anything like that,” Baird said. “They continue to be a part of our department.”

Baird said they were already short-handed before the mandate went into effect and while he’s glad those volunteers were able to stay on in a limited capacity, fire calls only make up about 25% of the department’s call volume. The other 75% are calls for medical emergencies, traffic accidents, search and rescue missions and other incidents that require emergency medical services.

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While having about 10 out of 30 volunteers unable to respond to those calls may not seem like a big deal, Baird said most of them have greater flexibility in their schedules than other volunteers and the department has relied heavily on that availability.

“Some of those folks are the ones that are around during the daytime and are most available, so that multiplies the problem a bit,” Baird said.

Baird said the situation has already started to impact their response time, which is already longer due to them being a volunteer department and having a large coverage area.

Unlike full-time, paid firefighters, volunteers do not live at the fire station; when a call comes out, they have to leave their home or workplace to drive to the fire station to get their gear.

“Shortly after that, we try and get out the door within 10 minutes of the call,” Baird said. “We’re usually first on scene because we’re kind of closer than some of the other folks.”

However, some of the calls take longer to get to — especially the ones that are upwards of 50 miles away. The Naches Fire Department covers U.S. Highway 12 from about milepost 194 to the summit of White Pass, along with the town of Naches.

“On a good day to get to the western side of our district…it takes us 45 to 50 minutes,” Baird said.

Baird said the delay is especially concerning for medical calls involving heart attacks, strokes and severe trauma — where a few minutes can change a patient’s outcome. He said there’s been a few times since the mandate went into effect Oct. 18 where none of the volunteers could respond to a medical call.

“It can make a huge difference,” Baird said. “When people are really injured, time is critical.”

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Baird said they’re anticipating bad weather and increased calls through the end of 2021 — which could further impact their response time.

“It could be kind of that perfect storm that’s coming,” Baird said. “And with the reduction in [staff at the Washington State Department of Transportation], are the roads going to be clear and passable? That will affect our response time.”

Baird said firefighters are also dealing with the unintended consequences of new police reform laws that went into effect earlier this year. As part of those changes, law enforcement officers have started decreasing their involvement in non-criminal incidents.

Police used to secure the location for other first responders during calls for overdoses, mental health issues or other calls where their safety might be in jeopardy. Baird said now, it’s usually EMS personnel going in first and they don’t always have law enforcement officers nearby.

“Sometimes when the subject is under the influence and you’re administering NARCAN, they can come out of it in kind of a violent way,” Baird said. “We have to be very measured about what we can send people into.”

Baird said it’s important for the community to understand that volunteer firefighters are there because they want to help, not because they rely on it for their sole source of income.

“Our volunteers are paid a stipend…they just get a few dollars per call no matter how long the call lasts, so they’re not doing it to enrich themselves,”  Baird said. “They do it because they want to and they have a call to service.”

Additionally, Baird said becoming a volunteer firefighter means making sacrifices and committing a lot of time and energy into training and responding to calls.

“There’s a lot of cold dinners that have been left there because they’ve jumped up in the middle, a lot of birthday cakes that didn’t get cut,” Baird said.

Baird said volunteers are already spread thin from obligations in their daily lives and can struggle to find balance when they add all the stress resulting from witnessing critical incidents as a first responder.

“People die. People are critically hurt. There’s a lot of pretty significant injuries,” Baird said. “You have to deal with the bad visions in your head.”

Baird said he wants the community to understand the role volunteer firefighters have in ensuring their wellbeing in the event of the emergency and the limitations they’re faced with in keeping people safe.

“We are a volunteer department and we’re going to do our best to provide that,” Baird said. “Don’t be upset if we kind of fall short of our goal. It’s not for lack of trying. We have been put in this position and I think, like everybody, we’re trying to do the best we can try to navigate through the challenges.”

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