Summit County ambulance, fire districts join forces for emergencies
BY THE NUMBERS
4: Ambulances now staffed in Summit County 24-7-365; increasing to 5 in October
20: Estimate of Summit County Ambulance Services employees brought on per diem in high seasons
45: Estimate of the total number of Summit County Ambulance Service employees
60: Average percent of bills collected by the county ambulance service
400: Medical transports to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center made by Red, White & Blue Fire in 2015
600: Annual out-of-county medical transports made by Summit County ambulances
4,000: Emergency calls currently received by Summit County dispatch a year
Summit County community leaders called it a step forward.
County government officials recently announced an agreement with two of the three fire districts in Summit that is expected to improve local emergency response and save money.
Starting Oct. 1, the county will co-staff two ambulances with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue and one from Copper Mountain Fire Department, and the three entities will use their existing resources to raise the number of 24-7-365 ambulances in the county from four to five.
HOW IT WORKS
The county will split up one of its two-person ambulance crews, which are trained to make out-of-county transports. Then those people will be paired with people from the two fire districts to create two new units from the current one.
The change means the county can add another year-round ambulance to its fleet of three while also reducing seasonal ambulance staffing, said Scott Vargo, assistant county manager.
In the past, the county added at least one 12-hour ambulance crew in the winter and often two or three during holidays using a pool of about 20 employees who might work one or two shifts a month.
The county can still do that, Vargo said, but it won’t need to as often with the additional ambulance, which leads to the cost savings. The seasonal positions won’t be cut, but those workers will see fewer shifts.
Cross-staffing also means cross-training.
Fire district employees all have at least EMT training, but the districts are working on increasing the number of employees trained for out-of-county transports with help from the county.
Plus the fire districts handle some matters the county ambulance service doesn’t, like aspects of car accidents and hazardous materials incidents, that county employees might become more involved with in the future.
County manager Gary Martinez said, “As our ambulance people get cross-trained, they would be able to work on some fire-related matters as well.”
WHAT ABOUT BRECK?
The new county agreement won’t have much of an effect on Red, White & Blue Fire Rescue, the fire district serving Breckenridge and Blue River.
Unlike the other two districts, Red, White & Blue has its own ambulances. The district staffs one full-time ambulance with its own employees and keeps its second for rare occasions in the winter when two staffed units are needed.
Red, White & Blue recently formalized a different kind of agreement with the county that started Jan. 1. In it, the fire district agreed to respond first to all medical emergencies from Hoosier Pass to Coyne Valley Road, a change the district has phased in over the last couple years.
The district has completed 400 transports to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center so far in 2015, said Jim Keating, fire chief. Before, when Red, White & Blue responded only when the county couldn’t, the district typically completed about 30 a year.
Keating said the change has made much better use of his district’s employees, who embrace EMS, and residents have given positive feedback. He supports the county agreement with the other two districts.
“We’re really excited that they’re coming on board and taking the next step to actually become involved in the EMS system,” he said. “It’s worked extremely well in our system.”
One challenge with the Red, White & Blue ambulance, Vargo said, is that those employees aren’t trained for longer-distance transports and aren’t co-staffed with a county employee who is, which means the district’s ambulance is allowed to drive down to Denver or Vail only if all the county ambulances are unavailable.
The county ambulance service is working to train the Red, White & Blue employees for out-of-county transports as soon as possible and then will focus on training for Lake Dillon and Copper employees.
WHY THE CHANGE?
The new agreement is one of several steps to integrate fire district and county ambulance services in a more efficient emergency response model, Martinez said.
In November, voters passed a property tax increase projected to provide $30 million over eight years for local public safety and water quality improvements.
Some of that new tax funding goes toward the cash-strapped county ambulance service, which is a fee-for-service operation that was subsidized by the county general fund in recent years.
The ambulance service was operating in the red after call volumes dropped with the Great Recession and the ambulances transported more patients with Medicare and Medicaid, which don’t reimburse the service for the majority of its costs.
The collection rate is now 60 percent, and county officials projected in 2014 that the collection rate would drop to 52 percent over the next eight years. Meanwhile the county responds to nearly 4,000 calls a year, Vargo said, and that number is growing.
The property tax increase sunsets in eight years, and Martinez said the county is hopeful it can make changes with the temporary extra funding that will allow the ambulance service to operate without deficits in the future.
“We think we have a new model that will work,” he said. “These are all great steps, all in the right direction.”
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