EMS workers from throughout Idaho attend EMS Day at Statehouse

January 24, 2023
Wayne Denny, EMS Bureau Chief

Updating Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in Idaho is no small task, but I was grateful yesterday for the opportunity to join my EMS colleagues to discuss the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Idaho.

EMS workers from throughout the state — as far away as Boundary County — traveled to Boise on Monday to help make a difference on behalf of the communities they serve. Paramedics, EMTs, air medical  personnel, EMS and Fire department leadership, hospital staff, and many others joined me at the Idaho Statehouse.

While their specific training and missions vary, they attended EMS Day for one purpose: to help educate lawmakers and Idaho residents about the challenges ahead. They explained that EMS services in Idaho are faced with population growth, a fragmented system of volunteers and paid staff, and Idaho’s inherently rural character.

If nothing changes with the current system, a crisis is looming, and I was encouraged that the people we spoke with seemed to understand.

EMS in Idaho is currently provided within a framework of different organizations that vary in patient transport and clinical abilities. Some emergency services use paid career response personnel while others rely on volunteers.

There’s a lot of variation in staffing models, but a consistent thread in Idaho is that rural communities tend to rely on volunteers, who are often the only emergency response available.

The total number of licensed EMS personnel has remained stable over the past 15 years but  hasn’t kept pace with the state’s population growth. Much of the increase in the number of licensed EMS personnel has been in the state’s urban areas, while the number of EMS personnel in rural communities continues to shrink.

If the current trend continues, many rural communities will be at risk of longer EMS response times due to a lack of EMS personnel. Communities that now have a local ambulance service may have to rely on a distant neighboring community for EMS Service.

There have been several efforts over the years to better understand the challenges facing the organizations and personnel who provide EMS in Idaho.

  • The Idaho Office of Performance Evaluation published a study in 2010 about the governance of EMS agencies.
  • In 2012 and 2018, the Bureau of EMS at the Department of Health and Welfare published reports detailing the concerns and possible solutions specific to volunteer EMS personnel.
  • In 2021, the Office of Performance Evaluations published a report about volunteer EMS providers with several actionable recommendations.

After reviewing the latest Office of Performance Evaluations report, the Health Quality Planning Commission asked the Department of Health and Welfare to convene a task force to find policy solutions — including draft legislative language — that will help make sure reliable EMS response is available everywhere in Idaho.

The task force first met in June 2022 and will continue to meet as needed. Four workgroups were formed to explore solutions between monthly meetings.

Another recent development includes hiring six contracted EMS planners who will work with Idaho’s 44 counties to document current EMS response capabilities, best practices, and resource requirements for a sustained EMS response.

The planners are only getting started, but they’ll develop plans for each of Idaho’s 44 counties moving forward.

For more information, visit the EMS Sustainability Task Force webpage.

Wayne Denny is EMS bureau chief in DHW’s Division of Public Health. He’s been with the department for 18 years.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening Idahoans' health, safety, and independence. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.

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