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Fire Chief says some aid may be a liability

November 29, 2011

The Bishop Volunteer Fire Department fire fighters battle a multi-residence blaze in Dec. 2009. The City of Bishop, Symons Ambulance Service and the Bishop Area Rural Fire protection District are trying to deal with a lack of ambulance services. Photo by Mike Bodine

The Bishop Volunteer Fire Department and Bishop Rural Fire Protection District have made some recent clarifications to its list of responsibilities, as well as to those of some the volunteers.
Through mutual agreements, the Bishop volunteers have been going above and beyond the call of duty since March to help make up for a shortage in ambulance services caused by pennies-on-the-dollar federal reimbursement to the local ambulance service, Symons. To keep the volunteers from crossing a potential costly legal line in helping too much, and to keep reliable services in place for residents, the parties involved continue to hash out specifics to some of these mutual agreements.
Following several incidents where Bishop volunteers were called out and arrived first on the scene of medical emergency situations in which they are not trained for and could be held liable in the case of an accident, the City of Bishop and the Bishop Rural Fire Protection District Board drafted a letter clarifying response policy.
The letter states, “Under the newly clarified policy recently conveyed by letter to the County and to local emergency medical services provider Judd Symons, the Fire Department will continue to provide physical assistance if requested by the EMS first responder, but not medical assistance or treatment. The Fire Department will no longer be dispatched as EMS first responder backup as has been the practice recently.”
The city and district board had decided, in March, to assist Symons Ambulance Service. Symons announced at that time that for a variety of reasons, primarily a cut in MediCal and Medicare reimbursements from the federal government, it would no longer be able to staff a full-time second-out ambulance. The city and district board decided that it would assist Symons, but only assistance, not as primary first responders.
The district board has now set in writing a policy stating that the Bishop Volunteer Fire will not be the first responders to Advanced Life Support or Basic Life Support calls, according to the City Council agenda packet from Nov. 14.
The trouble started when MediCal and Medicare reimbursements were choked off to a trickle, forcing Symons Ambulance to reduce its service to just one fully staffed vehicle available.
Because of this, Bishop Fire Chief Ray Seguine said that Bishop volunteers were called out and arrived first on scene as Symons was busy out of the area with another call.
Keith Caldwell met with Symons on Friday to discuss “how to provide the best service for the city.”
Caldwell said that Symons is working hard to get a second out despite funding cuts out of his control. Caldwell praised Symons and his crew, explaining that Symons will personally answer many smaller calls, many in the middle of the night, at no charge. Caldwell said he does not think many people in the community realize how dedicated Symons is to the community.
“We appreciate the job that Judd (Symons) is doing and we have nothing against him,” Seguine said. “But, we are just not equipped,” or trained, to help. Calls in support for ALS and BLS calls had increased 300 percent from March to October 2010, which is too big a work load for the Bishop volunteers.
Bob Winzenread of the Bishop Rural Fire Protection District Board said that as trained first responders, volunteer fire fighters are not covered by the GoodSamaritan laws and they could be held legally responsible if they tried to help and something went wrong.
“Our hands are tied, legally,” Winzenread said. He said he can recall situations when volunteers were first on the scene and had to let the victim lie there until paramedics arrived.
“Volunteer fire fighters are chomping at the bit to help,” Winzenread explained as it is what volunteers do, they help, and not being able to help is not good for the morale of volunteers or the reputation of the department.
Seguine said that as has been the policy, volunteers can help as muscle and man power for lifting or extrication, but that’s as far as the volunteers are trained and covered to handle.
And training is already a huge commitment for the volunteers. Seguine said that combined with the average 20 calls a month the volunteer respond to, there is bimonthly training to keep abreast with equipment and team work that adds up to more that 40 hours a month. There are some volunteers that have been unable to keep up with such a commitment.
Seguine said he after a review of attendance he has had to ask for the resignation of six volunteers. He said he’s “not happy” to have had to make the decision, “These are a good bunch of guys,” Seguine said.
“Its no fault of their own,” Seguine said of the six, but that is “it is tough to be a volunteer nowadays” with so much other responsibilities that add up and in this sour economy.
Seguine explained that there is also beefed up performance standard accompanying a new grant. The grant available to all Inyo County volunteers fire fighters that is aimed at recruiting and retaining volunteers offers a monetary allowance that is transferable to one of many tax-free accounts or services.
He said that the volunteers have to take on the whole range the responsibilities that comes with being a volunteer which includes staying current on training.
Seguine added that this does mean the end of a volunteer fire fighting career for those asked to resign. He said the volunteers can appeal and re-commit if they wish.

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