Oregon Highway Safety Starts With EMS

State plan’s top priority is recruiting and retaining volunteers

We frequently tell you to get involved. If you don’t like the way things are for EMS in the place where you live, there are ways to change it—just engage the various political and rulemaking processes. That’s easy to say and hard to do, but occasionally it does pay off.

Exhibit No. 1: the Oregon Transportation Safety Action Plan. That’s the state’s official highway safety plan, its framework for reducing deaths and serious injuries on highways and other public roads. Federal law requires states to have these, and Oregon’s was finalized last year and blessed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in January.

Its officially stated top priority is this: Develop strategies to assure the recruitment and retention of EMS volunteers.

That adjoins this: Work with partner agencies to position Oregon’s EMS system as world class and affordable for the average Oregonian.

Those are official directives from the state’s Department of Transportation, and they make Oregon’s plan unique in its explicit commitment to buttressing EMS. That’s so thanks in large measure to the advocacy of Victor Hoffer, a 30-year paramedic from Mt. Angel who, as one of five members of the Oregon Transportation Safety Committee, led the TSAP project.

The prominence of EMS “was something I pushed for pretty hard,” Hoffer says. “I never strong-armed anybody, but they knew it was important. By the time we voted on the No. 1 priority, the committee members knew we couldn’t continue to have all these deaths and serious injuries on the roadways.”

Hoffer was appointed to the OTSC by then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2008. He’s a field training officer for Rural/Metro in Salem and volunteers with Mt. Angel’s fire department, where his father was chief. His interest in highway safety is professional, of course, but also profoundly personal: He lost his father (1991), brother (1999) and son (2009) in motor-vehicle accidents.

The committee slot is a coveted one, and filling it with a paramedic was fortuitous, because emergency medical services are a mandated component of state highway safety plans. They’re one of four E’s set forth by the FHWA for the states to address: engineering, education, enforcement and EMS.

Yes, emergency medical services—including its integrated, interoperable communications—is promoted by the federal government as an essential component of its plan for safer American thoroughfares. But what the states do with that charge will vary. In Oregon, getting the proverbial seat at the table that’s so often eluded EMS leaders positioned Hoffer to promote it in practice and help keep it from getting subsumed by other interests.

“It’s important, because emergency medical services are the only thing you have left when the other elements fail,” Hoffer says. “It took a lot of being strong-willed. Everybody in law enforcement wants as much money as they can get. Engineering wants money. Education wants money—they all want money. But we ended up with a No. 1 priority to the whole plan to recruit and retain rural and volunteer fire and EMS. Nobody’s ever said that in any state highway plan anywhere in the United States. And then we back it up with the other item. I’m kind of pleased that we’re ahead of the game.”

The top priority, Action 109, surrounds finding and keeping volunteers. It calls for a focus on volunteer creation and development, strategies for recruitment and retention, ensuring attainable education standards, developing easy entry points and identifying barriers to participation. To achieve all this, the plan proposes increased public information and education about EMS, and boosting training opportunities for crash responders and all personnel, especially in rural and frontier areas, through avenues like partnerships, community colleges, webinars and the state’s Rural Pediatric Simulation Project. “By increasing our EMS and fire volunteer force,” the plan notes, “we will see improved responses, resulting in a reduction in fatalities and injuries. Increasing availability of EMS responders decreases response times and increases the quality of EMS care provided—resulting in improved patient outcomes in many cases.”

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