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On call, 24-7

NICOLE FORMOSAsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Brad OdekirkSummit County Ambulance Service paramedics Rob Palermo, right, and Bill Clark resupply an ambulance and check their equipment after a call last week. During December, ambulances are dispatched to approximately 500 calls as opposed to about 200 calls in October, according to an ambulance official.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – Silverthorne resident Mike Schmitt works full time, has a new baby and attends nursing classes in the evenings. His day-to-day schedule keeps him busy, but when he hears the familiar sound of his pager, he drops everything.”It pretty much halts my everyday life,” Schmitt said.Schmitt, a volunteer for Summit County Rescue Group for the past five years, and the other 40 volunteers on staff are on call 24 hours a day in case they need to search for a lost hiker or dig for survivors after an avalanche.”There are times when I get home from work, give the baby a kiss and the pager goes off,” Schmitt said. “It’s like, OK, back out the door. At least the truck is warm.”Beginning with the holiday season and stretching through April, Summit County’s permanent population of about 27,000 can triple, causing Schmitt and other local emergency services personnel to switch into high gear. Emergency response departments across the county must also take measures to adjust to the population spike, including altering shift times or adding staff.Paramedic Lauri Mignone sees everything from car accidents to cardiac problems during a typical 12- or 24-hour shift with Summit County Ambulance.”Last week was brutal,” Mignone said, referring to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.She has been a paramedic in the county for eight years and is used to the rise and fall of calls that correlates with the number of people in the area.”I can make it (awake) for 36 hours, but at 36 hours I’m pretty much done,” she said.Paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) often work 24-hour shifts to staff ambulances from 7 a.m. one day until 7 a.m. the next. They earn anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 per year, with EMTs on the lower end of the range and paramedics on the higher end.During a high volume call night, Mignone and her colleagues could be responding to 911 calls the entire time.

Other times, a patient transport to a Denver hospital will take up a three or four hour chunk of the night.Summit County Ambulance’s busiest month is March, when spring break vacationers come to town, but December is a close second, assistant director Ed Parry said. During December, ambulances are dispatched to approximately 500 calls as opposed to about 200 calls in October, he said.To adjust during the busier months, Parry will staff eight ambulances instead of the usual four.If ambulances are shortstaffed, a supervisor sends out a page asking for volunteers to spend their day off on duty, which can add up to almost 36 extra hours in a week.

Local police and fire departments can relate to the increase in calls.When the weather worsens, the Silverthorne Police Department turns its focus onto Interstate 70 – or the bordering ditch.”Things get interesting when the roads start getting slick, especially on Silverthorne Hill,” Sgt. Mark Hanschmidt said. “Skier traffic increases, and everybody is trying to get to Denver.”Because Silverthorne is the last exit before the Eisenhower Tunnel, which often closes when the weather turns snowy and icy, the department must be prepared to assist trapped motorists.”We work hand in hand with CDOT during road closures. The (Silverthorne) Recreation Center doubles as an emergency shelter for the Red Cross, and we hand out pamphlets to motorists about lodging facilities, restaurants and radio stations,” he said.Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman said the heaviest call load comes between midnight and 1 a.m., and almost all those calls revolve around alcohol. In the high season, the swing shift is adjusted to start later so that officers are still on duty when the bars close, Wickman said. Lieutenant Dave Williams with the Snake River Fire Department agrees that a lot more calls coincide with bars’ closing times during the winter. To cut down some of the stress that can come with hectic shifts, Williams makes sure his entire staff eats dinner together before their shift ends.”It’s a great way for our crew to bond,” Williams said.Red, White and Blue Fire Chief Gary Green keeps an optimal staff level on hand during the busy times and a minimal staff during the shoulder season.For instance, if somebody goes on vacation in September, he won’t always fill the open spot, but if a firefighter were to take a day off in January, Green would be willing to have another staff member work overtime to make sure all his bases are covered.

As a rescuer, Schmitt said he thinks the call load in summer and fall is catching up with the winter dispatches. Most summer calls are for a lost or injured hiker, while those in September and October revolve around hunting season, Schmitt said.Winter calls are dominated by injured snowmobilers or backcountry travelers in distress, including the possibility of people trapped in an avalanche. In early December, rescuers responded to a slide on Quandary Peak that was set off by a skier.The skier managed to escape the cascading snow on his own, but it was a situation for which rescuers are always prepared, even if it turns out to be a false alarm. “One time up at the (Eisenhower) Tunnel, two or three years ago, I got a page for a slide and somebody’s up there digging frantically and it turned out to be a tree stump,” Schmitt recalled.An average call usually means a rescuer will be on-scene for four to eight hours, sometimes longer.”I’ve spent a night up on Buffalo Mountain before,” he said.As a paramedic, most of the calls Mignone sees are trauma related, such as those sustained at a ski resort or in a car accident.While there’s ample opportunity to work overtime to cover all those calls on busy days, Mignone has to keep a healthy balance. “If I were to come in (every time they paged), I couldn’t do it. I would mentally self-destruct,” she said.Instead, she keeps herself sane by exercising with her dog, skiing when she can and making her bed as comfortable as possible.”I take my vitamins and sleep whenever I can,” she said.Although her job occupies a huge part of her life, especially during the wintertime, it’s the task for which she and her co-workers signed on.”This is normal for us,” Mignone said. “This is what we do.”Schmitt feels like he has a responsibility to respond to calls, whether he’s getting paid or not, but said there is a definite financial commitment on his part. Gear, such as gloves, boots, or snowshoes can cost $200 to $500 a year.Lost wages, gas to travel to rescue sites and wear and tear on his truck can also put a dent in Schmitt’s pocketbook.But, for him, it’s a trade off that’s dwarfed by the reward of saving lives. “We’ve had a couple people we thought were going to die for sure, but they pulled through,” Schmitt said. “Just having that happen once in your life is phenomenal.”Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or at nformosa@summitdaily.com


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