MUNISING - After years of preparation, Alger County took a major step forward this week in emergency response capability with ambulance crews now staffed with paramedics trained and licensed in advanced life support techniques.
"Basically, what it allows us to do is perform a lot of care out in the field that we used to have to bring patients to the hospital for," said Alger County Undersheriff Robert Hughes.
That capability is especially important in a geographically sprawling county like Alger, he said, where distances between people needing emergency care and hospitals can be great.
"Time is of the essence," Hughes said. "A big thing paramedics can do is utilize drugs out on the scene."
Paramedics are skilled in administering first-line cardiac drugs, antidotes and pain medications and other care.
There are now seven advanced life support paramedics working for the Alger County Ambulance Service, augmenting the efforts of 16 emergency medical technicians trained in basic life support.
Two of the county's three ambulances have been fitted with advance life support response equipment and medications.
"We bought lots of equipment," Hughes said.
From field training experience in Marquette County, Hughes expects about one of every 25 or 30 ambulance runs in Alger County to require the advanced life support paramedics.
Three part-time, and one full-time positions were recently filled to allow at least one paramedic to be working during day and afternoon shifts at the sheriff's department, rather than being on call for ambulance runs.
"It shortened our response time dramatically," Hughes said.
More positions may be filled in the future as the number of ambulance calls is expected to increase. With paramedics working locally, Munising Memorial Hospital can use local ambulances to transfer patients requiring paramedics to Marquette General Hospital, rather than waiting for an advanced life support crew to come to Munising from Marquette for transports.
Alger County will also likely have increased duties making intercept runs for outlying communities like Manistique and Newberry, with Munising as a midway point between those towns and Marquette.
"I can see nothing but our call volume going up," Hughes said.
Funding for the ambulance service and its employees is provided by patient billing and a 1-mill, four-year millage levy in place since 1980, which is up for renewal again in November.
Because of the millage, the ambulance service is able to charge reduced patient billing costs to patients, Hughes said.
Alger County's first moves toward paramedic capability began in 2003 when various required medical protocols were approved and put in place. Next came finding EMTs willing to make the commitment to learn and study for paramedic certification tests over a two-year period. Those individuals began classes in September 2006, finishing in February.
"They wanted to help us advance and a lot of credit has to go to them," Hughes said.
Those who passed the class in February then went on to national registry testing.
"You've got to get national certification to get your state license," Hughes said.
Over the next three months, the Alger paramedics will work as mentors to each other on ambulance runs and at subsequent debriefing sessions.
The county's advanced life support plans, ambulance equipment and staff training all had to pass state inspection before the county's license was issued.
Hughes said that in 1980, when he first got into emergency medical service, there was only one advanced life support paramedic in the entire Upper Peninsula. That paramedic served the Houghton area.
Since then, towns across the region have become much better prepared to respond to emergencies requiring paramedics.
"We're one of the last communities our size to get advanced life support," Hughes said. "I'm really excited about it."