Most people end up in the emergency room after calling 9-1-1, but the department became so overwhelmed on Saturday night that a nurse ended up calling the local fire department for help. Besieged with patients and staffing issues, the nurse sent a desperate plea for help to the Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue department in Washington state.
Local officials were able to step in and help the beleaguered hospital, but officials say calling 9-1-1 isn’t a long-term solution.
Chief Jay Christian said he was surprised to get a call from St. Michael Medical Center on Saturday night.
“The charge nurse expressed two times that they feel like they’re drowning because they had over 45 patients in the waiting room and only five nurses. She said, ‘We’re in dire straits, we need the fire department’s help, can somebody come up here and help us?’” he told reporters.
The fire department sent a crew to the hospital to assess the situation. Christian said two firefighters worked in the ER for about an hour and a half until things slowed down to a manageable pace. They helped staff by cleaning rooms, moving patients, and taking vital sights. Once the staff had things under control, a manager at the facility dismissed them.
“I think about the courage of that nurse to reach out and call for help,” Christian said. “I think about the firefighters who had to respond in that uncertain situation. I’m really proud of those individuals, and what they were able to do to resolve that crisis that night.”
Officials at the hospital say the facility has been suffering from staffing shortages for months. The problem seems to be getting worse due to an IT error at the facility’s parent organization, CommonSpirit Health. The error was caused by a ransomware attack and has delayed care for thousands of patents.
Company spokesperson Kelly Campell addressed the news over the weekend in a written statement. “At St. Michael Medical Center, similar to other hospitals in the state, we’ve been experiencing high patient volumes and staffing shortages,” she wrote.
“We continue to prioritize patients with the most urgent medical conditions, even when we are experiencing capacity challenges. We work to manage appropriate staffing levels and to balance capacity system-wide as effectively as we can. We recognize this is a frustrating time for our patients and staff and we appreciate the support of our partners as we work to meet the health care needs of the community.”
Delays at the facility are wreaking havoc on the county’s emergency response system. Fire department chiefs throughout the area have become increasingly concerned over delays for ambulance services.
Poulsbo Fire Department Chief Jim Gillard, who also chairs the Kitsap County Fire Chiefs Association, said the system has made some “small gains” after two meetings with hospital leadership.
Gillard said negotiations between the two groups have broken down in recent weeks. He said the “wheels just came off” after the IT error was discovered and that hospital leaders have canceled scheduled meetings on the topic.
“Short-term, the fire departments are going to do whatever we can to help support, if there’s a public health issue going on, a public safety issue, we’re going to do whatever it takes,” Gillard explained.
“That just isn’t the long-term solution. We can’t take our emergency response crews out of service to go supplement and support long-term. But just like CK did, we’re always going to go short-term, what needs to be done.”
Local fire chiefs shared their frustration with the hospital system, but they said they would respond to another request for help if needed.
“All the fire departments would dedicate resources to the public safety issue. It’s just what we have to do,” Gillard said.
But Christian said the delays and staffing issues are having a noticeable effect on public safety.
“It is hard, it is complex and it is frustrating,” he told the Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue commissioners. “In the fire service, in my world, every time there is a problem, we come together as a team and a unit and we work to solve the problem. But in this case, this is a private company and they’re not willing to talk to us. It becomes very difficult to solve problems when our partners are not sharing and being forthcoming and meeting us at the table.”