‘Silver tsunami’ puts CCFR in hot seat

In 15 years, Juneau’s population has only increased by roughly 2,000 people. In that same time period, the rate of emergency calls has more than doubled.

According to Capital City Fire/Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge, the reason for what will surely be a record-breaking year of EMS calls is a “silver tsunami” brought on my Juneau’s aging population.

During the Juneau Chamber of Commerce weekly luncheon Thursday, guest speaker Etheridge gave the crowd some alarming data. In 2000, CCFR responded to 1,875 total incidents, 1,453 of which were EMS calls. So far this year that total is 3,546 and 2,712, respectively.

“The guys don’t have a whole lot of downtime, and they’ve got training on top of responding to those calls,” Etheridge said of his thinly-spread response team.

On average, Etheridge said his crew of 33 full-time firefighters and the fluctuating group of volunteers respond to 11 calls a day. That number spikes during tourist season to 35.

Per capita, Juneau firefighters are busier than the downtown Anchorage crew where more than 300 firefighters are employed, Etheridge said. Not only are more senior citizens calling with slips and falls, but increased cardiac arrests due to unhealthy lifestyles are also a concern.

“We’re doing about 25 cardiac arrests a year,” Etheridge said. With this bit of bad news, he still boasted about the department’s 43 percent save-rate on such calls, an impressive figure next to the national average of 10.6 percent. A response is considered a “save” after a person is discharged from the hospital.

“Some of the stuff we’re doing on the medical side has been impressive,” Etheridge said.

Despite this progress, Etheridge emphasized the department is actively seeking out volunteers to help a slow-to-grow staff. In 15 years the department has only had one new hire, and that was Etheridge.

“They’re definitely getting pushed to their limits,” Etheridge said. Also getting pushed to the limit is the department’s shrinking budget. The cost of running the department last year was $8,751,600. The limited revenue options — EMS fees and selling old vehicles — generated $2,481,452 for the city.

Etheridge said on the horizon for the department is finding a way to help the under-served Lemon Creek area, which is the furthest from all the stations. Doing this on a limited budget is the challenge.

Also upcoming for the department, and less budget reliant, is a call to the community to become “address aware” during the snow-heavy season. Etheridge said a major problem for first responders during the type of weather Juneau has experienced lately can be the lack of visible house addresses. A simple sweep around the curb or mailbox where the address is posted, Etheridge said, can significantly cut down response time and potentially save lives.

Sanford recognized

Chamber president Dan Fabrello presented a resolution to recognize former Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford “for his solid leadership and his commitment to his community, country and family” during Thursday’s luncheon.

Sanford, a former firefighter himself, accepted the certificate of recognition with a brief thank you to the crowd.

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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