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Emergency! : Rural Rescue Service Struggles to Stay Alive

Times Staff Writer

Wayne Massey figured he had his work cut out for him.

Why, with heading a four-man team of emergency medical technicians running the only ambulance service in 700 square miles of San Diego County’s isolated and rugged backcountry, it was enough to drive a good man ragged.

There were late-night calls to his home atop Palomar Mountain. There were clifftop rescues. There were heart attacks and snakebite victims. And there were babies that had to be delivered.

With the nearest hospital at least 30 miles away in Escondido and, at the farthest point, 100 miles away along winding roads, the lone rescue crew and its ambulance had become a lifeline to civilization in the isolated canyons and valleys northeast of Escondido, to the Riverside County line. The San Diego Assn. of Governments estimates 20,000 people live in that area.

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Still, Massey enjoyed the challenge of the job he took in January.

But now, the crew known simply as Rescue 9994 is “just fighting to stay alive,” Massey said. Federal funds funneled through the local Indian Health Council in Pauma Valley, which had meant $100,000 annually since Rescue 9994’s inception five years ago, were cut off Aug. 1.

With no money for salaries, the three other medical technicians have since left for other jobs. Massey, however, has stuck around, even though he hasn’t been paid in almost two months.

“I see the need here and I really love the work,” the 31-year-old Massey said of his decision to stay with Rescue 9994.

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“Most of the time we are it out here,” he said, pointing to the modern ambulance.

Tourist traffic can get heavy on the two-lane highways in the area, authorities say. Unfortunately, Massey said, “happy campers” who drive the roads after drinking have made the need for Rescue 9994 especially acute.

“Too many of the calls are alcohol- or drug-related,” he said.

Massey, a former firefighter for the Deer Springs Fire Department, has recruited three licensed emergency medical technicians to volunteer their time to complete the crew that will man the ambulance round-the-clock until alternative funds can be obtained. The crew now includes his girlfriend, Denise Martin, 21; Matt Swinden, 21, and Jeff Songer, 25.

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With the help of county Supervisor Paul Eckert’s office there is a prospect that money can be found by levying taxes on property owners in the 700-square-mile area encompassing some of the wealthiest estates and Arabian horse farms in the county, as well as seven Indian reservations and some of the poorest people in the county. Such a special taxing district would have to be approved by a vote of property owners.

But between now and the time that the paper work can be completed to establish a tax system--called a County Services Area--Rescue 9994 desperately needs donations, Massey said.

So far, $17,000 has been collected for the Rescue 9994 Ambulance Fund, thanks mainly to an anonymous gift of $15,000 from an area resident. Massey figures that $122,000 is needed to keep the ambulance, which went on nearly 500 calls last year, in working order and pay the wages of Massey and the three other technicians until the permanent funding can be established in about a year. The calls by themselves won’t support the ambulance because the operators are able to collect on less than half the billings.

Rescue 9994 is based at the Rincon Fire Station, which is at the foot of Palomar Mountain, smack in the middle of Pauma Valley, where lush avocado and orange groves line winding roads. Beside a garage there is a small, adequate living quarters for the crew.

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Jeanie Schell, a lifelong resident of Pauma Valley and a registered nurse, said the residents in the area depend on the ambulance as their primary means of emergency care. It was Schell, five years ago, who finagled a used ambulance free from an Oceanside company and stationed it at the fire station, where volunteer firefighters could make rescues and transport victims of car crashes in the valley to Palomar Hospital in Escondido.

“I was getting sick and tired of sitting there with critically injured people and watching them bleed to death while we waited for an ambulance from Escondido,” said Schell, whose home is just off California 76, which winds through Pauma Valley.

Now, when residents of Palomar Mountain, Warner Springs and Lake Henshaw call 911 for emergency assistance, chances are Rescue 9994 is the first unit on the scene. Rescue 9994 gets to the scene of an accident and administers first aid, and if the victim or victims are seriously injured, Life Flight is called in to helicopter them to Palomar Hospital, site of the closest trauma care unit, Massey said.

“People in the area have become accustomed to a certain level of care,” Massey said. “Now, I hope they’ll want to help pay for it.”

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Although the logistics of the tax and exactly how much residents will have to pay has not been ironed out, it will probably be nominal, said Phil Dulin of County Emergency Medical Services.

For the crew, it apparently is worth the gamble to stay with Rescue 9994. When enough money does come in, they’ll make $1,000 to $1,500 a month.

“I like the backcountry,” Swinden said. “If you’re working in the city, it would be impossible to get the kind of experience I’m getting out here.”

Martin, the only woman crew member and a resident of Palomar Mountain, said, “I realize that if this ambulance goes out of business, I’m going to be in trouble, because I live here, too.”

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