Many Sultan residents may recall the fire that occurred outside the Vocational-Agricultural building at Sultan High School in January. But what people might not know is that, as Snohomish County Fire District 5 prepared to respond to that call, they were literally in the process of saving someone’s life.
Snohomish County Fire District 5 will have Proposition 1, a Maintenance and Operations Levy renewal initiative, on the ballot during the upcoming primary election. The majority of the levy funds will be used by the district to fulfill the staffing requirements necessary to continue responding to 911 calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.
Fire district 5 covers 72 square miles located in the Sky Valley. The district responds to around 1,000 calls per year, an average of approximately three per day.
According to Chief Merlin Halverson, renewal of the Maintenance and Operations Levy is crucial to the district and will help to ensure that they are able to maintain their current level of services. As far as assessing the value of the service, Halverson has one key indicator; would he be confident in calling on them if his own family was in need?
“I can promise you that if my family’s lives were in danger, I would be happy to know that this organization was responding,” said Halverson. “And I want to keep it that way.”
Sky Valley resident Dee Waluk-Johnson would also be happy to know that district 5 firefighters would be responding should she ever need their help; they’ve already saved her life once. When firefighters arrived at her home shortly after 12:30 p.m. on January 10, she was, by medical definition, deceased.
The call came in as an “unconscious,” and records show that as first responders arrived on the scene she was cyanotic, unresponsive, had no pulse and was not breathing.
“I was gone,” said Waluk-Johnson.
Waluk-Johnson had suffered from a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) which is a drastic cardiac event with a typically bleak outlook. For a person to survive, they must receive medical treatment within minutes of the incident. Nearly 95 percent of those who experience an SCA do not survive.
Sudden cardiac arrest differs greatly from a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when part of the heart’s blood supply is restricted or blocked, but it usually does not cause the heart to stop beating. SCA occurs when the heart’s electrical system misfires, causing the heart to stop beating very suddenly. Prompt cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and treatment with an automated external defibrillator (AED) is the most effective way to save a patient who has suffered an SCA.
“What really saves people’s lives is the electricity,” said Halverson, referring to the external defibrillator, which typically delivers in between 200 and 360 joules of electricity per shock.
Sudden cardiac arrest events often occur with no advanced warning. In Waluk-Johnson’s case, she had suffered a previous myocardial infarction, or heart attack, about three years prior.
“I drove myself to the hospital for that one,” said Waluk-Johnson. “And they put in a stint.”
Just a couple weeks before the SCA incident, she had been to the doctor for a series of nuclear stress tests, all of which she passed with no indication of any trouble.
“I passed with flying colors,” said Waluk-Johnson.
When the SCA occurred on January 10, Waluk-Johnson had been working at her desk. She recalled experiencing a sudden dizzy spell, and instinctively felt that something wasn’t quite right. She remembered calling out to her husband, who was home at the time, and after that, nothing.
District 5 firefighters Jon Perkins and Andrew McLaurin were first to arrive on the scene. Waluk-Johnson’s husband, who had CPR training from the military, was performing the life-saving technique when they arrived.
“The blood has enough oxygen to sustain the cells for a short period of time, so the fact that he was willing and able to provide compressions and breaths… The credit goes to him,” said McLaurin. “We just took it from there.”
McLaurin and Perkins had strategized on their way to Waluk-Johnson’s home, which is located just outside Sultan off the Ben Howard Road. They developed a deliberate plan of attack and worked through the details of who was going to perform what functions.
The two were attempting to prepare for the worst case scenario, which is indeed what they found when they arrived. They also encountered several obstacles on their way including a train, an extremely narrow and difficult-to-navigate roadway, a closed gate and Waluk-Johnson’s dogs.
Despite all of this, they arrived on scene, took over CPR and engaged the defibrillator in a very short amount of time.
“These were people who knew what to do, they knew how to do it and they had the right equipment,” said Halverson. “The record shows that within one minute of their arrival they had a shock on board.”
Halverson explained that the district employs a layered response system when it comes to aid calls. Snohomish County Fire District 5 contracts with the Monroe Fire Department for paramedic services, and in the event of a CPR call like Waluk-Johnson’s, District 5 EMTs are dispatched along with a team of paramedics from Monroe.
District 5 provides both basic and intermediate level EMT services, but it is less expensive for them to contract with Monroe for paramedic level services than it would be to hire their own. While basic and intermediate level EMTs can perform a vast array of life-saving functions, paramedic services are required to deliver certain medications and perform things like EKG analysis.
Timing, particularly in cases like Waluk-Johnson’s, is critical.
“Our goal is to be on the road during an aid call in under two minutes,” said Halverson. “I’d prefer under one minute.”
McLaurin and Perkins were on the road in approximately one minute and 13 seconds. Lt. Tim Tullis and firefighter Matt Myers followed shortly thereafter in one of the district’s large fire engines.
After delivering the first shock, McLaurin, Perkins and Myers continued to provide chest compressions and breaths, plus further shocks as dictated by the defibrillator. Perkins explained that providing compressions is very taxing and EMTs must work together as a team.
“You don’t necessarily notice it right away, but then all of a sudden you start losing energy and your technique kind of goes away,” said Perkins. “We try to cycle each other out before that happens.”
By this time, District 5 firefighters had IVs going in both of Waluk-Johnson’s arms and were fully engaged in providing CPR. Soon after that, the paramedics arrived from Monroe.
“About the time the medics showed is when we got our fire call,” said McLaurin. “I think we had our third shock on board.”
And it was after that third shock that Perkins saw Waluk-Johnson’s eyelids begin to flutter.
Waluk-Johnson went from zero to sixty in a split second; in one instant she was completely unconscious, and in the next she was awake and trying to sit up. McLaurin and Perkins agreed that she seemed instantly alert, aware of her surroundings and had even retained her sense of humor.
At that point, with the paramedics having secured the scene, the decision was made to release Lt. Tullis and firefighter Myers to respond to the fire at Sultan High School. Soon after, Waluk-Johnson was transported to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.
Waluk-Johnson’s call came in at 12:30 p.m., and the school fire call came in shortly thereafter at 12:49. Fortunately, the fire call was received by three additional firefighters who were available to respond immediately. An additional engine came from Gold Bar to assist, and soon after that, Tullis and Myers arrived from Waluk-Johnson’s house in Engine 51.
The school fire was extinguished before causing extensive damage.
District 5 employs six full-time paid personnel, as well as 32 volunteers or part-time staff, who earn minimum wage. The combination is effective; in the case of Waluk-Johnson, two full-time staff as well as two part-time staff responded to the call.
In the case of the fire at the high school, the first responders included one paid staff along with two volunteers.
“Our volunteer staff relies very heavily on our paid staff,” said Halverson. “In order to retain this wonderful group of volunteer staff, we need to have a good solid core of paid staff.”
Waluk-Johnson was invited to the fire station on June 26 to meet and hug each of the firefighters who responded to her aid call. She thanked each of them for being there for her.
“You guys rock; you really do,” said Waluk-Johnson.
She also provided some commentary on what occurred after she got to the hospital.
After spending a few days at Providence, physicians were struggling to determine what exactly had happened to her. Finally one night she underwent an episode of ventricular tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat, and physicians made the decision to fit her with an internal computerized device known as an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).
“It’s a pacemaker and a defibrillator,” said Waluk-Johnson. “So I can jump start a car now.”
The small device is implanted underneath her skin near her left shoulder.
Funding for the fire district is achieved almost exclusively through property taxes, which make up 90 percent of the district’s revenue. When assessed values in the district dropped in 2009, this meant that the district’s funding was reduced, as well. The original Maintenance and Operations Levy, which was approved by voters in 2010, was meant to compensate for that lost revenue. Unfortunately, after 2010, assessed values continued to decline, which resulted in additional loss of revenue.
The levy is the only recourse the district has to make up for that lost funding. Currently, the levy brings in approximately a quarter of the district’s revenue.
Proposition 1 will sustain the district’s current 4-year levy at a slightly higher rate than the previous levy. The total levy amount of $625,000, if approved, would result in a property tax increase of $.18 per $1,000 of assessed value. This means that, on a home assessed at $200,000, the new levy rate would result in a $36 total increase.
“That’s nothing,” said Waluk-Johnson. “How do you put a value on a life?”
As property values begin to increase, the levy rate will automatically decline.
Waluk-Johnson is not the only person who has survived a significant medical event at the hands of District 5 firefighters. So far in 2014 there have been at least three significant life-saving events, potentially more.
“Survival for us is going to the hospital alive,” said Halverson. “Because of the laws, we never really know what happens to people after that. Unless we happen to see them on the street out here, we don’t know.”
District 5 firefighters are constantly working to keep their training up-to-date so that they are well-versed with the newest procedures and life-saving techniques. One of the ways they stay current is by taking CPR courses through the Medic One Foundation of King County. The foundation offers instruction which provides trainees with the information behind the technique.
“One of the things they like to do is teach us the science that goes into it,” said McLaurin. “It’s really good information.”
In addition to providing structural firefighting, wild land firefighting, emergency medical aid, swift water rescue, vehicle extraction, public outreach, and hazardous material services, the district also offers their own series of CPR and basic first aid classes.
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