Board Approves Early Start for Paramedics

By Patric Hedlund

March 1, 2009 will be the start date for Pine Mountain’s long-awaited firefighter-paramedic program. A vote Tuesday morning by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to jump start the program caps an intense five year battle by the mountain community for more timely emergency medical response.

The early implementation of Measure K—which won a hearty 75.3 percent approval from the voters—will be made possible by a $118,000 loan from the $722,000 already accrued in Pine Mountain’s County Service Area 40 (CSA 40) fund.

A July or August 2009 startup date was originally estimated as likely by Ross Elliott of the Department of Emergency Medical Services. That would parallel the county’s new fiscal year, when proceeds from the $70 per parcel property tax within the CSA 40 area actually begin to pay for the program.

Supervisor Ray Watson and Kern County Fire Chief Dennis Thompson told The Mountain Enterprise before Thanksgiving that they would work to make an earlier start possible. Thompson presented the letter requesting the funding formula Tuesday, Dec. 16. Watson made the motion to approve the measure. Supervisors voted unanimously— after discussion with county counsel—to approve.

Pine Mountain Realtor Karen Bailey wrote a letter last month saying she would hold the supervisors personally responsible for any additional death that took place while the community was waiting for the paramedic program to begin. She has made the firefighter-paramedic program a campaign to honor the memory of her husband Harold Bailey, who died of a heart attack in February 2005 while an ambulance took over an hour to respond to her 911 call for help. Fire department personnel waited with her, helpless without the paramedic tools, drugs and certification to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) assistance. Chief Thompson’s letter said the money is needed to upgrade the Pine Mountain station from Basic Life Support to full Advanced Life Support.

This is the first ALS program under the Kern County Fire Department. It was heavily resisted by the private ambulance association of Kern County, dominated by Harvey Hall, the mayor of Bakersfield whose company has county contracts locking 87 percent of the population into his company’s exclusive operating areas.

The firefighter-paramedic program will not change Hall’s contract with the county as the exclusive provider in this area for medical transport to hospitals. The fire department does not transport patients. Concern for an increase in private ambulance personnel costs are noted in a statement issued in 2007 by the Kern County Ambulance Association as a reason they oppose the KCFD’s firefighterparamedic program in Pine Mountain. Hall’s ground ambulance service often bills between $1,500 and $3,000. Air ambulance bills are reported to be about $16,000 between Pine Mountain and Bakersfield.

Firefighter paramedics are often able to respond rapidly to stabilize heart and brain function for emergency patients while they await transport to hospital care. Because of the large distances between rural areas in Kern County, ambulance response is much slower than people in urban Bakersfield expect— up to 75 minutes in some areas. At times the ambulance has been unable or unwilling to come into Pine Mountain at all, because of other calls or adverse weather conditions.

California City, also within Kern County, has a paramedic program, but it was created under the city fire department. That program was also hotly resisted by Hall. California City’s fire chief argued, “We need this program. We’re tired of seeing people die.”

This is part of the December 19, 2008 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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