Measure would fund additional ambulances for the Big Island

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today file photo An ambulance leaves on a call from the Kailua Fire Station.

KAILUA-KONA — The push is on for ambulances for Hawaii Island.

Two more ambulances are needed for the island to meet calls for emergency medical services — one in West Hawaii and one in East Hawaii. The advanced life support vehicles, if funded, would be stationed at the Makalei Fire Station in North Kona and in Puna.

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Though Puna remains a priority, as identified by the state and emergency service providers, an ambulance is also needed for the Makalei area, said Dru Kanuha, a freshman Democrat representing Kona in the state Senate.

“Makalei is one of those areas that an ambulance is badly needed to serve the community,” said Kanuha. “With the vast distances between Makalei and Kailua (Kona), having an ambulance at Makalei would better serve that entire area.”

The Makalei area is serviced by the Makalei Fire Station, which opened in late 2012, but it doesn’t have an ambulance. A California donor was prepared to gift an ambulance to Makalei years ago, but eventually withdrew the offer a couple of years back because of a lack of funding to staff the vehicle.

The closest ambulance-equipped fire station is eight miles away in Kailua-Kona.

Senate Bill 877 seeks $100,000 in fiscal year 2019-20 and an another $100,000 in fiscal year 2020-21 to establish and fund the ambulances. The appropriation would cover the purchase of vehicles and equipment and personnel costs for state-certified emergency medical services personnel.

The bill was co-introduced by Sens. Kanuha, Stanley Chang (D-Oahu) and Karl Rhoads (D-Oahu), with Sens. Kai Kahele (D-Hilo) and Maile Shimabukuro (D-Oahu) co-sponsoring the legislation.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health is scheduled to take up the bill during a hearing on Feb. 1. If it passes the first committee, the bill would need to secure and pass through the Senate Committee on Ways and Means no later than Feb. 15.

No ambulance units have been added to the Big Island for more than a decade. The last unit to be added, in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates in 2005, brought the island’s total units to 15. The Hawaii Fire Department also contracts with American Medical Response for ambulance services.

In 2005, the island’s population was 167,293, according to the U.S. Census. As of July 1, 2017, the island’s population was estimated at 200,381 — an increase of about 33,000 people or nearly 20 percent.

As population has grown in both areas, an increase in calls for emergency medical services has been recorded, according to the legislation.

Between 2010 and 2016, Puna’s population went from 45,326 to 45,517 while North Kona saw its numbers increase from 37,875 to 41,662, according to the 2017 State of Hawaii Databook, which noted the 2016 numbers are based on American Community Survey five-year estimates.

The bill also notes that there may be challenges accessing primary health care in the areas resulting in emergency medical services becoming primary health care access points for many residents.

“Due to the lack of resources, it has become common for paramedics to respond to as many as ten calls for emergency medical transportation during a twenty-four hour shift,” the bill reads. “The potential for fatigue resulting in errors in judgment, driving and overall safety are of great concern for personnel and residents.”

Previous testimony for ambulances in both areas indicates the need is greater in Puna. In January 2018, the DOH testified that the mandated DOH contracted response time for Puna and surrounding areas is 20 minutes or less. A review of data from 2010 to 2016 showed response times exceeded the mandated 20 minute threshold between 16 percent and 39 percent of the time.

In the Makalei area, the review demonstrated that response times exceeded the mandated 15-minute threshold about 10 percent of the time.

Though neither ambulance would be stationed in his Senate district, Kanuha said his time on the County Council makes securing the ambulances important to him. Not to mention, an ambulance assigned to one district often times services areas outside of its own district when needed.

“We’ve been trying to support these measures while on the council for years now, so to be in a position to hopefully try to make it happen, I’m here to do it,” said Kanuha.

Laura Mallery-Sayre, who founded the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation with her husband Frank Sayre, said the foundation is behind the bill 100 percent and encouraged people — residents and visitors alike — to submit testimony to the Legislature.

“You do have a voice, and when your voice is a collective voice, there’s a lot of power,” she said.

Attempts to reach Hawaii Fire Department Chief Darren Rosario and Sen. Kai Kahele for comment were unsuccessful.

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To submit testimony, visit capitol.hawaii.gov and enter SB877 in the bill status/measure status box. From there, select submit testimony.

Email Chelsea Jensen at cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com.

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