About 104,000 people live in the 16 counties that make up the Western Nebraska Emergency Care Connection: Arthur, Banner, Box Butte, Chase, Cheyenne, Dawes, Deuel, Garden, Grant, Keith, Kimball, Morrill, Perkins, Scotts Bluff, Sheridan, and Sioux. In the course of a year, EMTs and paramedics respond to nearly 10,000 emergency medical calls from residents in the combined counties.
Until recently, some of those EMS providers were left to their own devices when communication “dead spots” prevented them staying in contact with other agencies, hospitals, emergency room nurses or physician medical directors during medical emergencies.
“It’s really lonely out there when you can’t talk to someone,” said Alliance Fire Chief Troy Shoemaker, a long-time EMT. He has responded to emergency calls between Alliance and Hyannis where cell phones didn’t work and emergency radios only worked if you were lucky.
But emergency communication just got better for Troy and the other 39 EMS agencies that serve the region with over 400 volunteer and paid EMTs, nurses, and paramedics.
A fundraising campaign launched two years ago by Regional West Foundation has raised enough money to finance a comprehensive upgrade of the regional emergency communication system. Working together as the Western Nebraska Emergency Care Connection, Regional West Foundation, panhandle hospitals, EMS squads, and a number of charitable foundations raised more than $600,000 to upgrade radios, install 13 new repeaters, and link additional communication towers into the network.
“This is a huge improvement,” said paramedic Brad Schrum, Alliance’s Assistant Fire Chief. “Communication tends to be the biggest problem in emergency situations. This new equipment will enable us to talk to anyone we need to talk to. We’ll even be able to connect our emergency radios to a doctor’s cell phone to communicate so we can improve patient care.”
Nebraska hospitals and emergency health care providers were required by law to convert from wide to narrow bandwidth to make room for more radio frequencies by January 2013.
The Western Nebraska Emergency Care Connection campaign not only paid the radio conversion, but also provided new communications equipment for the Transfer Center at Regional West, a radio link between Chappell and the Sidney Regional Medical Center, and compatible communications equipment for hospitals and ambulances throughout the 16-county region.
The local hospital radios are now connected to the new Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network fiber optic network.
“This equipment actually touches more lives than any other equipment we use,” said Shoemaker.
Valley Ambulance Services owner, Randy Meininger, who happens to be the mayor of Scottsbluff, devoted countless hours to spearheading the campaign because he knows first-hand that radio communication can be the difference between life and death. Meininger has devoted his life to emergency medical services since 1979, when he became an EMT.
“My family travels throughout the panhandle and it doesn’t matter what county they’re in, I want to know that emergency care and emergency communication is available for them,” he said.
Meininger, Shoemaker, and Schrum are very happy with the fundraising success, but more important, they’re proud of the unified effort among squads in planning the system upgrades for the benefit of panhandle area residents, especially those that are sick or injured.
“This conversion and upgrade enhances emergency communication between EMS providers and hospitals for the benefit of everyone who lives, works, and travels in western Nebraska,” said John Massey, president of Regional West Foundation.
Tax-deductible donations are still being accepted for the Western Nebraska Emergency Care Connection campaign.