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Without housing, Cooper Landing Emergency Services struggles to keep volunteers

A group of Cooper Landing Emergency Services volunteers in 2021. EMS Chief Clay Adam is in the front row on the far left.
Gyda Sears
Courtesy of Cooper Landing Emergency Services
A group of Cooper Landing Emergency Services volunteers in 2021. EMS Chief Clay Adam is in the front row on the far left.

In order for emergency responders to arrive quickly to the scene of an accident, they need to live nearby. But in Cooper Landing, a lack of affordable housing is driving volunteers out of town, and leaving the community with a drought of responders.

Paramedic Clay Adam came to Cooper Landing in 2019. He moved from Houston, Texas, where he managed one of the busiest trauma centers in the country. Although he left behind the pressure of that job, he inherited a new stressor as the Cooper Landing EMS Chief: having enough people to adequately respond to emergencies across hundreds of square miles of land, and 70 miles of highways.

“Worrying every time those phones go off: Are you gonna have enough people? And it does create a lot of stress” Adam said.

In the central Kenai Peninsula community of close to 400, the only emergency response station is the non-profit, volunteer-based Cooper Landing Emergency Services. The department runs off community donations of both money and time, in order to respond to car accidents, fires and other emergencies in the town, more than 45 minutes from the closest borough-managed fire station.

But volunteers are in short supply. Adam said it’s because Cooper Landing has struggled with providing the affordable housing necessary to retain CLES volunteers — most of them young families looking to rent.

Adam said most of the options for those who can’t afford a house are dry cabins — meaning lodging without running water — that go for $1,000 a month. Many small properties are designated as short-term rentals like AirBnb and Vrbo, unavailable to long-term renters. And, even if the volunteers could afford to buy, Adam said 50% of the land in the town is owned by trusts.

One of the only rental options in town, a four-unit multifamily building, previously housed several CLES volunteers. But last year, flooding caused a well contamination, and this February, the property owner evicted all of the residents.

CLES lost eight volunteers, basically overnight.

Rachel Mundy is one of the volunteers who got evicted from that apartment building.

“It was super run-down and full of mold and nothing worked, the oven didn’t work, it was awful, but we were so happy to get it,” she said.

Mundy said most of the housing options in town are extremely pricey, or worker housing for employees of local businesses, most of which close during the winter anyway. After being evicted from the apartment building, she moved into an RV with her husband, also a volunteer, and baby, and they lived in the parking lot of the CLES station.

Now, she lives in Sterling, and sleeps at a friend’s house in Cooper Landing a few nights a week so she can be on call for the station. When she’s home in Sterling, sometimes an ambulance from Central Emergency Services passes by her house, and she feels powerless.

“Had I been in Cooper Landing, I could have responded. You know, you work so hard to make sure you keep a community safe, that you’re doing your part, and now it’s like I can’t do it anymore, and it wasn’t my choice,” she said. “And it just stresses me out that…what if someone can’t be responded to, what if they needed more hands?”

This winter, CLES has 18 active volunteers — down from an ideal 25 to 30. But four are traveling out of the state right now, and most of the remaining volunteers work during the day and aren’t available, so the station operates off a much shorter on-call list.

“If I got a call right this minute, I would probably have four to six people able to respond immediately,” Adam said.

But the average number of responders needed for an EMS call is four, meaning if more than one incident happens at the same time, CLES would be in trouble. And for fires, the number of responders needed is an unachievable eight to ten.

During a major three-vehicle accident a few weeks ago, CLES arrived on the scene with half the number of personnel they would normally require. Instead, Adam had to request assistance from Central Emergency Services in Soldotna, an hour away, which sent two ambulances.

The limited number of responders can put a lot of pressure on the small number of people that are available. Adam, the only paramedic at the station, is afraid to leave Cooper Landing, knowing his skills could be needed at any time.

“I literally do not leave town unless I absolutely have to,” he said.

Adam said that stress makes it hard to go to a movie theater, or go out to dinner outside of Cooper Landing. He tries to leave the community just once a month for groceries.

At these unsustainably low levels of volunteers, CLES is looking forward to some changes that might help.

More than half of the CLES volunteers are moms. To help out those families, CLES is starting an auxiliary volunteer program, where community members can volunteer to babysit the children or feed the pets of volunteers while they’re on call. It’s a way for people who want to get involved but can’t work as EMTs to help out.

CLES is also considering becoming a formal service area within the borough to ease the financial pressures and volunteer shortages. This would involve creating a service area board and receiving a budget from taxes.

“The community sort of has to decide. Either they’re not going to have any responders because the responders can’t afford to be here, or they can become a service area, yes they’ll have to pay taxes,” Mundy said. “But then they’ll have someone if they get hurt, if they’re choking, if they have a heart attack.”

This option is especially attractive as the borough considers growing the community through a large parcel west of the town, and as the Sterling Highway bypass project comes to fruition.

Although the bypass has been advertised as a safer alternative to the narrow, curving roads of the current highway, Adam is worried that higher speed limits and increased traffic will create higher call volume for CLES.

When it comes to housing, Adam says Cooper Landing needs more affordable housing, and fast, to keep the community protected.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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