Tourism, aging create ‘a lot of challenges’ for Ketchikan’s first responders

an ambulance crew
A Ketchikan ambulance crew unloads the first “victims” during an emergency preparedness drill. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

More ambulance calls. It’s something Rick Hines, Ketchikan’s fire chief, is grappling with.

“So, there’s a lot of challenges with the increased call volume and limited personnel,” he said.

The calls are for any number of things. The day before, the crew responded to a cat that was stuck in the dash of a car. The cat is fine. But Hines says the increase in callouts has a few causes.

Ketchikan’s aging population is one of the big ones. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people in Ketchikan above the age of 65 increased by a little over 75% over the last decade. That’s more than any other population group, and it’s above the state average.

Pair that with more tourists, and Hines says it puts a real strain on the fire department.

“The struggle for us is to provide the best service possible to our year-round residents, the people that live here, while also being able to service those coming in to enjoy our city,” he said. “I think there was a couple of times last year that we had seven emergency calls occurring at the same time.”

When that happens, the fire department pages off-duty crew members to respond to those additional calls. He said crew members need those days off to catch up on sleep and have downtime.

“So, I think that it’s a system that’s very challenged,” Hines said. “If you think about it – I’m just giving an example – yesterday, our off-duty crew responded to 17 calls. And we sent out a page for off-duty members to come in. Today, they’re already, I think 10 or 11 calls in one day already.”

Ketchikan is expected to have many days of more than 19,000 visitors next season. Hines believes that number is pretty conservative. For one thing, he said they don’t account for all of the crew members that are getting off the boats and heading into town.

“Some of the lessons we learned is – when a cruise ship, they’ll dock and they’ll call us and say, ‘Hey, we got we have three patients that need go to the hospital,’” Hines said. “Instead of utilizing three ambulances, we’ll send one ambulance crew, and they’ll make an assessment on the criticality of all three of those patients.”

The fire department is working with the South Tongass Fire Department and the emergency planning commission to put these lessons into action. They are also trying hard to increase their volunteer ranks ahead of the first cruise ship expected to be making port in April.

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