City hires emergency personnel

Six firefighters/EMTs employed to provide 24/7 response coverage

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— The Steamboat community has a new first line of defense in its quest to deal with the rising number of fire and ambulance calls in the area.

The city of Steamboat Springs began 2002 with an elite corps of six new firefighter/EMTs that will provide 24-hour coverage to the residents of the city and the surrounding rural fire protection district.

The five men and one woman hired for the positions are all cross-trained in firefighting and emergency medical response techniques. Three of them are paramedics and the other three are firefighter/EMTs who have not attained the full training of a paramedic.

With each team on duty 10 days a month, they work in pairs to watch over the city.

Response times

The benefits to residents are already obvious: Response times from the time of the 911 call to the time when emergency professionals are on the road are significantly faster from last year.

The emergency professionals sleep in their clothes at the ambulance barn on Yampa Street so when their pagers go off in the middle of the night, they merely have to roll out of bed and get their boots on before heading out the door.

"From dead asleep, we're within a one-minute response time," said Mike Hirshman, a longtime ambulance paramedic who made the transition to the full-time cross-trained staff this year.

Last year, an ambulance call that came in at 2 a.m. would send pagers beeping throughout the county, often far enough away to cause EMTs to have to take a 5-mile drive after warming up their cars and that was just to get to the ambulances. Response times for workers to get into ambulances could be as long as 10 minutes, said Mel Stewart, the director of ambulance services.

The change has resulted in response times for ambulances being cut by about 75 percent, Stewart said.

Response times for fire calls have dropped in a similar fashion. Although he did not have exact data, Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble said the difference in just the first 60 calls has been significant.

Volunteers drive the engine

Though much has changed in the business of fighting fires and making ambulance calls in Steamboat Springs, the core of the work is still the same.

The city is still heavily dependent on the men and women who make up the volunteer fire department, said Michael Arce, one of the new cross-trained employees.

Hirshman agreed.

"The whole engine is driven by a lot of people," he said.

Paul Yonekawa, a volunteer firefighter who sits on the executive board of volunteers, said the new group by no means diminishes the city's need for volunteers. The professionals who work regular day shifts and respond to calls from home at night likewise still drive medical service, Stewart said.

Even when there are people on 24 hours a day, the coverage would be thin without the help of volunteers. No fire, for instance, would be staffed by only the two full-timers and no volunteers. And a cardiac arrest would bring out the entire staff, Stewart said.

"We won't always need volunteers, but until there are funds to support expanding the full-time force by 20 people, volunteers are key ingredients to providing highly skilled personnel at nominal cost to the taxpayers," Yonekawa said.

The city has 22 volunteer firefighters who are called to hundreds of incidents every year. Those firefighters were called to 200 more incidents in 2001 than in 1995 as the city's needs jumped dramatically. Now, with more than 600 calls every year, the city is doing its best to deal with the demand.

Having a full-time staff does take some of the burden off the volunteers though, Yonekawa said. False alarms that need to be reset can be handled by the full-timers rather than making volunteers go to the scene.

The volunteer group is now split into two battalions that are on duty on different nights. If there is an emergency in which many people are needed, everyone will be paged, but otherwise half of the volunteers may be able to take a night off the first time the department has had that flexibility since its creation more than 100 years ago.

"It amazes me that people just assume that we work full time because of the kinds of things we are able to do," Yonekawa said.

Coming together

The city, in conjunction with the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District, decided last year to budget for new full-time staff members that would be controlled by the city.

As of last year, the city managed fire services and the rural district controlled ambulance services, with each organization serving all of Steamboat and the rural district. Now all employees are under the city.

The rural district currently pays for about one-third of the cost of operations, while the city picks up the rest of the tab.

The rural district, which encompasses 428 square miles of property surrounding Steamboat, is drawing on funds from a ballot issue passed in November 2000 to pay the city for both ambulance and firefighting services.

The approximately 3,000 residents of the rural fire protection district voted to increase their property taxes to fund the district's operating expenses and bond for a new fire station and equipment. The pair of referenda passed by a near 2-to-1 margin with the fire station proving slightly more contentious. Before the vote, city officials had warned the district that without the financial assistance those referenda provided, the city would not be able to stay in the mutual aid agreement.

The city had hoped to add 12 new full-time workers, but budget constraints limited their hiring capabilities.

The new firefighter/EMTs make about $31,000, while the paramedics make about $34,000 per year, said John Thrasher, the city's human resource director.

Fourteen firefighters applied for the six open positions last year, all from within the ranks of Steamboat's volunteer department. City officials said the hiring decisions were difficult but they are confident that more firefighters will be added as the city budget gets more flexible.

Steamboat will not be going to an entirely full-time force any time in the foreseeable future, especially given the city's current fiscal constraints, Struble said.

And without a much larger force, the city will still have concerns about fighting wildland fires without more help from the county, he said. Last year, the city and surrounding rural fire district pulled out of a county memorandum of understanding, which asks local fire districts to fight wildland fires, because of a lack of available personnel and resources.

Working all night

The new emergency professionals are working on what is called a Kelly shift: They work 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on, 24 off, 24 on and then have four days off. That doesn't mean that if there is a large enough emergency they won't be at the scene on a day off, but it does mean that they won't be likely to respond on those days.

They have beds set up at the ambulance barn where they sleep with pagers turned up and ears half-awake. Hirshman jokes that they have to brush their teeth in shifts to make sure they don't both have foam in their mouths if they have to get on the radio.

Two weeks into the year, the system is working well, firefighters say. But there are still growing pains.

Arce recalled one moment when he realized how big a challenge his new position presents. He was transporting an 88-year-old cancer patient to the hospital when he had to insert an I.V. into her arm. He handed the instrument to Hirshman, the paramedic.

Not that he didn't know how to insert the needle, but Arce said he didn't want to cause the woman any more pain than she had already been through if his hands weren't as deft as his paramedic partner's. It's a curveball he knows he will be able to handle as time goes on.

"Eventually, it will be more predictable," Arce said. "The whole system is in its infancy."

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203

or e-mail asalzman@steamboatpilot.com

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