OAKHURST – As we see in the news nearly every day, the importance of quick response in an emergency cannot be overstated.
No one knows the critical need for timely service by highly trained and caring individuals better than the team at Sierra Ambulance, a nonprofit entity essential to the mountain community it has served so well for fifty years.
As they celebrate their 50th anniversary, it’s a good time to remind everyone of the benefits to both the ambulance service and to residents of becoming a member.
Sierra Ambulance started out in 1964 with a used Cadillac conversion purchased from a company in Reedley, according to General Manager Ed Guzman.
The nonprofit organization has now grown to include a fleet of paramedic ambulances that are dispatched from three foothill locations 24/7. In 2013, Sierra Ambulance responded to 3,713 emergency calls, roughly 300 a month says Guzman, noting they are busiest in summer months.
“Tourism is at its peak and people tend to get into more trouble in the hotter months. We take care of people hurt water skiing at the lake, hiking up in the woods and dirt-biking on the trails.” But crashes and traumatic injury account for a relatively small number of emergency calls.
“The fact is, only 22 percent of our call activity is the result of injury, and most of those injuries are not car crashes,” says Guzman. “They are trips and falls, power tool injuries and sometimes, violence related injuries. The other 78 percent of calls are medical ailments like heart attacks, strokes and breathing problems. The emergencies that occur quietly in the middle of the night can be just as dangerous and just as fatal as a serious car crash.”
Sierra Ambulance dispatches ambulances from three different locations – Oakhurst, Bass Lake and Coarsegold. The fleet includes a total of six paramedic ambulances, along with two 4×4 utility vehicles.
Three ambulances are staffed at all times and they periodically staff a fourth, fifth or sixth unit when it gets very busy, or when they are providing coverage for local football games or other special community events.
“Our service area is huge,” explains Guzman. “It starts down at the 22-Mile House on Highway 41, and extends northward up to and including parts of Yosemite National Park. We cover from the Mariposa County line in Ahwahnee, eastward through Bass Lake and North Fork to the Fresno County Line.
“The southern part of Yosemite National Park, Wawona, does not have paramedic service, so Sierra responds up through and including Fish Camp all the way to Glacier Point to assist the Park Service rangers.”
They have six ambulances in the fleet, which are typically staffed with one paramedic and one emergency medical technician (EMT). The EMT is trained in advanced first aid, CPR, splinting, bandages and the use of oxygen. The paramedic is trained in those skills, plus electrocardiogram interpretation, IV infusions and injections, and is able to administer about 30 different medications, treating a variety of ailments and injuries.
“Our staff receives the same level of training as any paramedic anywhere, whether working in Fresno, San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
Fifty years ago, Sierra Ambulance was established by a handful of Oakhurst residents who were tired of waiting an hour or more for an ambulance being dispatched all the way from Madera. The original organizers didn’t have much money, says Guzman, and wanted a structure for their new volunteer-based ambulance service that would support their core values. That’s how the membership program was born.
“Our membership program was initially developed as a means to get people to donate money toward the purchase of the first ambulance,” Guzman recounts, citing the 1958 Cadillac. “The non-profit status was, and is unusual, but was the perfect solution for a budding volunteer ambulance service that would grow from its volunteer roots into a paid professional organization that is still community focused. The membership program really has changed very little. It is an annual $65 fee that is paid per household and covers your immediate family living with you.”
Sierra Ambulance currently has about 2,400 memberships, raising about $150,000 a year.
“Out of that $150,000, we use a little over half, about $80,000, to cover the benefits of those who are members who end up needing ambulance service during that year. The money we earn from the membership program is used specifically for the purchase of new equipment and ambulances; so literally, each member owns a small piece of all six of our ambulances.”
Guzman says most of their revenue now comes from fees for services, paid by insurance companies, MediCare and Medi-Cal.
“We do not receive any direct subsidies from local government and we refuse service to no one,” he continues. “We are self-supporting, and we encourage everyone to join the ambulance service. That $65 not only supports us, but also provides protection against the surprise of an unpaid or underpaid ambulance claim.” That kind of claim can easily amount to thousands of dollars.
Beyond providing a critical medical service to the community in the form of paramedic and EMT response, Sierra Ambulance is committed to community education, offering classes including CPR, First Aid, Advanced Cardiopulmonary Life Support (ACLS), pediatric specific programs, skills verification, EKG interpretation and more.
“Our paramedics can only do so much,” Guzman says. “We must rely on family and Good Samaritans to render aid before we arrive if a patient is going to have their best chance to survive. That is why we offer community CPR and first aid classes. We also like to go into the schools and talk to kids about 9-1-1 and what they can do in an emergency. Even something as simple as turning the lights on and unlocking the door can be a big help to us.”
Another way the public can help out our local ambulance service is by obeying the rules of the road when an emergency vehicle is approaching, whether it’s lights and siren or lights alone. Today’s modern vehicles are so sound-proof that people often can’t hear the siren until the vehicle is right on their bumper. That’s why, many times, emergency vehicles now travel with lights flashing and no siren – an alert that should be taken just as seriously as blaring sirens.
“When you see any emergency vehicle approaching from the rear with their lights flashing, you need to pull to the right and stop at a place where it is safe,” says Guzman. “Sometimes the safest thing to do is to continue forward until you see a turnout or other wide spot. Our drivers do not want you to jeopardize your safety by making an unsafe maneuver.”
Guzman says it’s a good idea to signal your intention to pull to the right by turning on your signal and proceeding forward until you find a safe place to pull to the right and stop.
“We understand. We do like to know that you have seen us and that you intend to yield when you can. That is a big help to us.”
Another critical thing you can do to help emergency personnel is to install a green, reflective house number sign at your driveway. The saying, “We can’t help you if we can’t find you” is serious business when minutes are ticking away. Signs are available from Station 12 in Oakhurst, Station 10 in YLP, and Station 11 in North Fork.
Beyond that, the best thing people can do that’s a big help is to support Sierra Ambulance through their membership drive. $65 buys a lot of security, for those who hold the membership, and for the future of excellent response to emergencies in the mountains.
“Our relationship with the community is a symbiotic,” Guzman concludes. “We need community support and we want to be here to meet the needs of the community. Most of our staff live here. We want people to know that we are here for them, and in turn, the community has always been there for us.”