By Gary Meyer, Publisher and Patric Hedlund, Editor
It’s a good season for gold. The poppies are bursting across the hillsides and The Mountain Enterprise has received two new first place awards in statewide journalism competitions for 2009. The California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA), which has worked on behalf of a free press for 122 years, awarded The Mountain Enterprise first place for Public Service Reporting for 2009 and first place for Best Website.
The honors went to this newspaper in its 44th year serving the Mountain Communities.
The Public Service award was for the final series of stories reporting the long struggle for firefighter-paramedic services in the remote area of Pine Mountain.
This is the second year The Mountain Enterprise has won first place for Best Website. Launched at the end of 2006, www.MountainEnterprise.com has become the "go-to" source for breaking news and updates specific to our local Mountain Communities.
Reporting on the paramedic issue in Pine Mountain heated up in early 2005 when Realtor Karen Bailey’s husband, Harold Bailey, suffered a heart attack at their home.
Kern County Fire Department Station 58 arrived on-the scene within eight minutes, but the ambulance did not arrive for nearly an hour.
The firefighters kneeled helplessly alongside Mrs. Bailey after their oxygen supplies ran out. They were unable to provide life-saving drugs to keep her husband alive. Tears flowed as they watched Mr. Bailey die.
The private ambulance company’s paramedics arrived 56 minutes after the 911 call.
Under Kern County’s Emergency Medical Services ordinance at the time, only Hall Ambulance Service (owned and operated by Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall) was allowed to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) paramedic services.
Hall’s closest station is nearly a half hour away in Frazier Park. When its one ambulance is away from the mountain, back-up must come from Arvin or Taft. When there is snowfall on the roads, the ambulance drivers sometimes refused to come into Pine Mountain.
Harold Bailey’s death provided a rallying point for residents who had already launched a campaign to get Kern County firefighters licensed as ALS paramedics.
At the time, all Kern County firefighters, whether trained and licensed by the state as paramedics or not, were limited to providing only Basic Life Support (BLS) aid. Licensed paramedics were not allowed to use drugs and medical skills to save lives.
Several years of community organizing, lobbying and local struggle followed before residents finally managed to establish a ballot measure for the November, 2008 election.
The measure asked residents if they wanted to tax themselves $70 a year to have firefighterparamedic services. If successful, it would be the first time in the history of Kern County Fire Department that trained and licensed paramedic firefighters would be allowed to provide ALS services to save lives.
Fire Chief Dennis L. Thompson stood firmly behind the effort, vowing before a group of citizens in Pine Mountain that he would establish a firefighter-paramedic program in their community before he retired.
Despite "Exclusive Operating Area" contracts granted on a noncompetitive basis by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to serve 86 percent of the county’s population as a monopoly, the owner of Hall Ambulance still appeared to believe that allowing firefighter paramedics to operate in Pine Mountain might be a business threat.
In the autumn of 2008, Hall Ambulance Service’s spin campaign kicked into high gear. Pine Mountain had become the front line in Hall’s battle to preserve their near-monopoly in the paramedic business.
Residents, on the other hand, saw it as battle for their lives in an area of the county where firefighters typically arrive at emergencies within 6 to 9 minutes, then wait for the private ambulance medical transport service for 20 minutes to half an hour, sometimes longer.
As the November 4 election day approached, the Bakersfield-based KernTax organization, closely aligned with the mayor, mailed letters to Pine Mountain residents containing misleading claims about the community and its firefighter-paramedic initiative, urging residents to vote against the ballot measure. Bakersfield television and the daily newspaper there carried negative spin about residents of the Pine Mountain community.
A series of large, glossy mailers flooded into Pine Mountain mailboxes during the two weeks before the election, containing more misleading information intended to create fear about the proposed firefighter-paramedic program.
The Mountain Enterprise recognized that its community was under attack by outside special interests.
The mastermind behind the glossy mailers was suspected to be a former member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors and then-consultant for Hall Ambulance Service.
On October 31, just two business days before the election, political consultant Gene Tackett was telephoned and congratulated by our editor, Patric Hedlund, for his slick work. He said ‘thank you’ and that he was proud of the campaign.
When Hedlund asked about the basis for statements on the cards, such as that the fire chief and firefighters opposed the measure and that voting ‘yes’ would put the families of mountain residents at risk, Gene Tackett hung up.
Hedlund called back. Again, Tackett hung up—as he did several more times, rather than explain why the mailers carried such misinformation—but not before he admitted to his "nice work" on the cards.
The weekly’s newspaper was already on the streets when the source of the mailers was confirmed. The next publication would not come out until after the election,
The Mountain Enterprise editor rushed out a printed single sheet "Special Bulletin" with the news report about the source of the glossy mailings being traced to the Hall Ambulance consultant.
That bulletin was distributed throughout Pine Mountain on Halloween night.
The bulletin was also placed as breaking news on the newspaper’s website. The reports included an analysis of the facts. On election day, the community of Pine Mountain voted overwhelmingly—above 75.4 percent—to launch the first firefighter- paramedic program in the history of the Kern County Fire Department.
In March of 2009, the first team of firefighter paramedics arrived for duty in Pine Mountain. Fire Chief Dennis Thompson retired that month. A year later, over 51 percent of medical-assist calls in Pine Mountain benefited from lifesaving ALS paramedic intervention.
The statewide CNPA Blue Ribbon Judging panel wrote: "Kern County today has a better emergency response team thanks to The Mountain Enterprise. The newspaper’s gritty and persistent effort to get a firefighter-paramedic program approved on a public vote represents a notable example of journalistic public service."
For 2006, the first time they’d entered the competition, The Mountain Enterprise won three statewide awards, plus an honorable mention, and for 2008 the newspaper won four national awards for excellence in journalism.
This is part of the April 30, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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