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EMS calls continue to increase

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Agency stretched thin amid budget cuts

By Ian Neligh

Calls to Clear Creek EMS this winter are at an all-time high, straining the agency’s workforce and funding.

The last 20 days of December and first 20 days of January saw the ambulance service respond to 275 calls.

"A lot of these days were at least 120 percent of average, but when we get into January, we're looking at 200 percent of average on a lot of days," said Clear Creek EMS director Nicolena Johnson. "And this is traditionally a pretty busy time of year for us, (but) this was unprecedented."

Clear Creek EMS went on 1,643 calls in 2016, some 10 percent more than in 2015. Service calls have increased year after year, and Johnson said there is no sign of a slowdown.

With its $1.4 million budget, Clear Creek EMS has 12 EMTs and paramedics who staff two ambulances 24 hours a day. A third ambulance is staffed by Johnson and her deputy chief, also paramedics, Monday through Thursday, and by other staff from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

However, Johnson said that’s not enough. During the first 20 days of January, Clear Creek EMS called Gilpin County 15 times under a mutual-aid agreement.

"It is very unusual," Johnson said of the need for assistance. "It has never been this busy, and we were finding ourselves needing that third truck every single day."

Johnson said the EMS budget doesn’t allow for one more ambulance on the road because the county is cutting spending due to the impending closure of the Henderson Mine.

"I think one of the challenges that we're going to find, moving through the year and into 2018 with the county's budget cuts, is that we are expecting … a very interesting challenge of making sure there are enough resources for the county," Johnson said. "A constant topic of conversation is, how are we going to cover these calls if it continues at this rate?"

Newly elected Clear Creek County Commissioner Randy Wheelock said the previous commissioners prioritized EMS funding, which was at the heart of the proposed health service district that was rejected by voters in November.

"The voters spoke, so we are back to the drawing board," Wheelock said. "Our new (county commission) has identified stabilizing EMS costs and funding as one of our top goals for the next two years, and our first step will be to gather public input through (a) citizen focus group in the coming months to find the best solution."

County spokesman John Bryan said officials realize the first responders are under increasing pressure as a result of fewer resources and more demand.

"Taking care of those who take care of all of us is very important, and we will continue to help our EMS and other first responders in their challenges," Bryan said.

Reasons for the increase

Johnson said EMS is seeing increases in all types of calls.

"We're seeing it everywhere," Johnson said. "I was thinking there was going to be some particular hot spot that we could say, 'Oh, that was it,' but in all reality, there are a lot more people in the state."

Johnson said calls in 2016 were primarily for traumatic injuries of all types, including accidents at ski areas, while wrecks on Interstate 70 take up little time.

"That's the interesting thing. Our call volume to I-70 has gone down pretty drastically over the past 10 years," Johnson said, "and that's in part because vehicles are made with different standards. … I can't tell you that there are any fewer car accidents, but I can tell you there are fewer car accidents that we respond to, and there's far fewer car accidents where we take patients from them."

Contact Ian Neligh at couranteditor@evergreenco.com, and check www.clearcreekcourant.com for updates and breaking news.