The Kenai Peninsula Borough is taking a swing at a long-standing challenge on the eastern Kenai Peninsula: how to get emergency services to people on the long, sparsely populated Seward Highway.
On the eastern peninsula, the Seward Highway and the stretch of the Sterling Highway east of Cooper Landing cut through more than 100 miles of federal forest land. The small towns of Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Crown Point cluster around small sections of the road, and Hope sits at the end of a 16-mile highway along the Turnagain Arm. Together, they make up less than 1,000 year-round residents, but an average of 3,000–4,000 people drove down the road every day in 2015, with a summer peak three times higher, according to Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities statistics.
When there’s an accident in the area, victims rely on the Alaska State Troopers and the services of several different volunteer emergency medical and fire service organizations to help. But if there are no volunteers on duty, they have to rely on Central Emergency Services, which ends up sending responders from its post in Sterling, about 30 miles west of Cooper Landing.
Borough administrators want something more solid than wishing drivers “good luck” before heading out into that section of the highway and to take some of the burden off the volunteer emergency responders in those communities.
“They’re not growing young families up in there,” said Stormy Brown, who co-chaired an Emergency Medical Services Workgroup born out of the borough’s 2015 Healthcare Task Force at a public meeting in Soldotna on Tuesday. “But we’re all driving through there.”
At its March 7 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved an ordinance amending the borough code to set up an emergency service area where there are no voters. At its April 18 meeting, the assembly will consider introducing an ordinance to formally establish the Eastern Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area.
The service area would have no voters, no property and no formal buildings associated with it — it’s just a legal formality on the books that creates a corridor along the Seward Highway and eastern Sterling Highway. There may or may not be dedicated assets in the future — that’s all unclear at this point, Brown said. Right now, the plan is just to get the service area established, which gives the borough the authority to look into it further.
The workgroup provided a rough estimate for annual expenses of $350,000, according to a memo submitted to the assembly for its April 18 meeting. About $100,000 of it would go toward a part-time employee, medical director oversight, mileage reimbursements and other associated standard budget items, according to the memo. The other $250,000 is an estimate for contractor’s fees for emergency response services.
Other borough service areas are funded through levying property taxes. However, there are very few people who live in that area, and it is on federal land, so the borough is looking at drawing from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds the federal government gives the borough every year.
Brown said creating the service area doesn’t automatically create the budget appropriation for it. Under the proposal, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has suggested a five-member service area board, which would then draft and present a budget to the assembly, just like the other service areas.
Stitching together services
Getting an ambulance on the eastern peninsula mostly depends on volunteers’ schedules.
Bear Creek Fire and Emergency Service Area has a station and employees, serving the Bear Creek area north of Seward. The city of Seward has a volunteer fire department and a volunteer ambulance group, but they mostly respond inside the city limits and are also limited by staff availability. Cooper Landing has no local EMTs, and some of its volunteers can no longer drive at night or lift patients easily. More and more, they’ve been having to depend on CES through a mutual aid agreement, which isn’t really mutual, as Cooper Landing doesn’t respond to calls in the CES jurisdiction.
And yet, Cooper Landing has an ambulance and some volunteers who can drive it, which make them the primary responders when there’s a car accident nearby. Moose Pass has an ambulance but struggles with staffing, said CES Chief Roy Browning at the public meeting in Soldotna on Tuesday.
“Cooper Landing feels like they have a lot of burden on them because they are the only ambulance transport (in that area),” he said.
Cooper Landing Emergency Services considered drawing back from the highway as a way to reduce EMT burnout because of the amount of effort it takes to respond to accidents on the highway, pulling resources away from the Cooper Landing community. If they had, CES wouldn’t have been able to help on the highway either, because CES can’t have a mutual aid agreement with an empty section of highway. If there is no service area on a section of highway, it doesn’t matter if CES has the resources to help — it’s bound by law not to provide services outside the borders of the service area.
That’s the point of creating the highway service area — to create an entity the borough can work with rather than an empty stretch of highway, Browning said.
In general, the volunteer departments on the eastern peninsula are supportive, though it will mostly impact Cooper Landing, Hope and Moose Pass, said Eddie Athey, chief of the Seward Volunteer Fire Department.
“I would say that on the whole, we are supportive of tackling this problem, which has been a problem for a number of years,” he said. “We all travel the highway at some point, back and forth to either Anchorage or Soldotna, Kenai, whatever. It behooves all of us to come up with a mutually agreeable solution to providing emergency services (in that area).”
Seward and Bear Creek have mutual aid agreements with the smaller organizations, but the lion’s share falls on them, Athey said. He estimated that Seward responds outside its service area about a dozen times in a calendar year. The Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps operates three ambulances that serve the area, but like the other volunteer organizations, they struggle with staffing, especially if they end up driving multiple hours out into the Chugach National Forest.
A bill before the Alaska Legislature, HB 148, would authorize second-class boroughs to establish service areas on state highway corridors without voters in them. Sponsored by representatives Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski), Gary Knopp (R-Kenai), Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) and Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) and cross-sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), the bill is currently in the Senate State Affairs Committee.
The Alaska Municipal League and the Alaska State Troopers both wrote letters of support for the bill. It could provide solutions for the other second-class boroughs in the state as well, wrote Alaska State Troopers Director James Cockrell in a letter to Chenault.
“The solution in HB 148 requires no obligation from the State of Alaska and allows local governments to determine the best solution for their communities,” Cockrell wrote. “Improved emergency response along crucial highways in the state will benefit all Alaska residents.”
The assembly will consider introducing the ordinance to create the service area at its April 18 meeting in Seward, with a public hearing scheduled for the May 16 meeting in Soldotna.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.