Officials with the Pea Ridge Ambulance Department are not waiting to hear if they've been approved for a second attempt for the federal SAFER grant to fund paramedics full-time.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant helps small departments transition to a combination department. Former Fire Chief Jack Wassman began working on the application in 2019 and presented the request to the mayor and then City Council in June 2020. Council members approved his applying for it in August 2020. Pea Ridge did not receive the grant that year. Then Wassman applied again.
This past week, the mayor authorized interim Fire Chief Jared Powell to hire three full-time paramedics, taking one more step in making the volunteer Fire-EMS Department a combination department.
"We hope to have them on staff August 1," Powell said.
In a letter to members of the department, Powell said he appreciated the continued support and dedicated service to the city even in the face of the death of Police Officer Kevin Apple that has "shaken us to our core."
"I have received nothing but praise from the police officers, city officials and member of the public for those of you that were on the scene that day," Powell wrote. He advised personnel to take advantage of any of the counseling services offered.
In the letter, Powell said said that the mayor agreed in April that if the SAFER grant was not received, the department could hire three full-time paramedics and he plans to move forward with that immediately.
"Our part-time staff who do not transition to full-time are encouraged to stay on board to fill open positions," Powell wrote. "It is my personal belief that Pea Ridge will continue to rely heavily on volunteer firefighters and first responders for many years to come."
Over the past two years, Wassman repeatedly told city officials that they are running a full-time department with part-time help stressing that the medics staffing the advanced life support ambulance have each already worked full-time shifts for other departments. They do not earn benefits at Pea Ridge and are paid $16 per hour. Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are paid $14 per hour.
"We will still need the part-time medics," Powell stressed. "We don't want anyone to leave."
At this time, there are 18 paramedics and 19 emergency medical technicians on the roster available to Pea Ridge with 24 volunteer firefighters.
On July 3, Jason Bowman, an EMT with the department, posted on social media his concerns about the department and contacted local media agencies about his concerns. He also said he had contacted the state Department of Health saying the department did not always have a paramedic on staff.
"My concern is that the medic is getting left uncovered way too many times," Bowman said. "When they took on that ALS (advanced life support) service, they promised to staff it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year."
Bowman, who has been a firefighter/EMT for 25 years, works full-time for the Bella Vista Fire Department and is the fire chief of the White Rock, Mo., Fire Department. He said he was injured in the 1990s when he was working the scene of a motor-vehicle crash in McDonald County, Mo., and was struck by a vehicle. He said working the scene in Pea Ridge when Police Officer Kevin Apple was hit and killed by a vehicle "brought back demons" from his own accident.
"It hurts every day," he said. He said he was working in the station in Pea Ridge alone Saturday, June 26.
"These incidents like this cause a lot of mental stress... some people can't handle it," he said, "and they leave. It's no different for us as first responders. PTSD is a real thing among first responders. You lose a lot of people to it."
He said he has not attended any of the three de-briefing sessions held for anyone wishing to attend after Apple's death.
Chief Powell said there have been three debriefing sessions as well as a hotline counseling offered by the city. He said he attended one of the sessions and found it helpful. He said the department's chaplain is "keeping his finger on the pulse of the department."
Pea Ridge EMT Ashlynn Andregg participated in one of the de-briefing sessions offered.
"Tragic events in the first-responder world are hard to forget because of the immense amount of stress that accommodate the job," Andregg said. "I had never been to a Critical Incident Stress Management before and didn't know what to expect."
She said she realized that emotions and hurts related to the incident are completely normal even though not always obvious.
"Guidance was given on how to heal and how to return to somewhat normal life without having to carry the entire burden," she said. "I benefited greatly from the CISM and would recommend it to anyone who has gone through a first-responder tragic event as you may find there are emotions and things buried that are still affecting your mental health."
Bowen said several medics have resigned because of concerns over administration of the department.
Powell said there have been several resignations from medics working part-time but none were related to dissatisfaction with the department. He said he was notified that the State Department of Health has opened an investigation. He said the department just passed its annual ALS inspection in June.
"We've had an influx of first responder applications," Powell said.
Powell and Mayor Jackie Crabtree both said funds for the full-time positions were made available by the expertise of administrative assistant Stephanie Henson has has been the billing coordinator this year.
"Having somebody here Monday through Friday to send invoices and constantly work with insurance agencies has had a tremendous impact on our collections," Powell said, adding that Henson is a former medical coder and her knowledge "along with ambulance billing specific training" has enabled the department to increase reimbursements in a timely fashion.