The Waunakee Area EMS is about to undergo a major change, raising the bar on its level of service and the number of calls it can respond to.
On July 1, the Emergency Medical Service will move from a one-ambulance EMT level to staffing both ambulances at the paramedic level of response.
Its director, Scott Russell, outlined the transformation at the June 18 Waunakee Rotary Club’s meeting on Zoom.
“This is a monumental change for us and for our district and the community members,” Russell said.
The Waunakee EMS will then have the ability to intubate patients in the field and administer 47 additional types of medication.
At the district’s current response level, if a patient needs some life-saving medications, EMTs must call other agencies in Middleton or Sun Prairie, and the response time is about 24 minutes. Waunakee EMS can reach most people within the district in 8 minutes; if a 911 call comes from the southern end of Westport or in the western portions of Springfield, another EMS district closer is dispatched, Russell said.
The change to a paramedic level of service is part of a five-year plan adopted by the commission, spanning from 2020 to 2024, Russell said. It takes into consideration the financial impact of the changes. The district receives 65 percent of its funds from user fees and the rest from property taxes collected by its member municipalities.
“We didn’t want to put the burden on the citizens all at once, so we created this five-year plan to slowly phase in this concept financially,” Russell said.
He noted that a SWOT analysis was first done with the commission and community members to examine the district’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. From that, they determined the No. 1 need was for a second ambulance.
“And we needed that second ambulance to be in service at all times,” Russell said. “At the end of 2018, our district had grown so much that we saw ourselves missing roughly 225-230 calls per year because we didn’t have a second ambulance staffed.”
For those calls, patients would wait for an ambulance from surrounding districts in Middleton, Lodi or Cross Plains.
“As you know, we’re not very close to any of those areas, so there was quite a wait,” Russell said.
To staff the second ambulance consistently, another set of three full-time paramedics would be needed. The second ambulance will be staffed like the first, with one paramedic and volunteers.
At that single paramedic level, the Waunakee EMS won’t be able to perform one procedure – when a patient is paralyzed to get an airway in place. Two paramedics are needed for that.
A jump car will also be put in place by the end of July, giving the EMS the flexibility to send a third paramedic if needed.
As the commission talked about adding a second ambulance and more full-time employees, they realized the cost was not much greater to hire paramedics rather than advanced EMTs. They also realized they still had a need for the volunteers and the Waunakee EMS’ “family atmosphere,” Russell said.
So a program was created to sponsor up to 15 members through the paramedic class, allowing volunteers to become part-time paramedics for Waunakee EMS.
“We felt this was important to create a culture of being able to grow from within and create our own true family here, bringing them on as unlicensed EMTs and running them up to a paramedic level,” Russell said.
Currently, four volunteers are in paramedic class now and will have their license at the end of August.
“I’m actually really excited. This is the first time anything like this has happened as far as our neighboring towns…there’s never been a department in this area that’s actually been willing to sponsor people through a paramedic course like this,” Russell said.
Asked if sponsoring a paramedic course had drawn additional volunteers, Russell said it had. He noted that members are asked for a 1-year commitment and those who complete the course are asked to sign a two-year contract.
Starting on July 1 at 8 a.m., the switch to two ambulances will be live.
“It’s a huge, huge change for us. There’s going to be some growing pains that will come along with this,” Russell said.
The agency is working with the UW EMS Consortium to help through the medical end of the additions. The consortium has seven doctors and four physician’s assistants to help with the training.
“The knowledge and the background that the UW brings is actually just immeasurable for us,” Russell said.
Waunakee EMS has had to secure its station for some of the new medications being added, particularly during the opioid crisis. Ambulances will also be equipped with locked boxes for these.
Russell said last year, the EMS responded to 1,500 calls. With two ambulances, each will be sent to about 750 calls, alternating on calls. Russell expects the agency will miss only about three to four calls per year, he said.
“This is definitely a huge upgrade to our capabilities and our ability to serve our community and make sure that we do have units available at all times,” Russell said.
Much of the added cost for the additional service is now being covered through the district’s reserve fund. The tax impact rose from $17.50 per capita to $20 this year and will go up $2.50 per capita each year in the five-year budget until the EMS is fully funded.