The new North Routt Fire Rescue ambulance, right, uses a forward-looking infrared camera to help the driver spot large mammals such as cows and elk on the road at night before they can be seen in the beam of headlights. The decommissioned ambulance at left is North Routt Fire Protection District's original ambulance, a 1972 Chevrolet Suburban.

Barbara McNary/courtesy

The new North Routt Fire Rescue ambulance, right, uses a forward-looking infrared camera to help the driver spot large mammals such as cows and elk on the road at night before they can be seen in the beam of headlights. The decommissioned ambulance at left is North Routt Fire Protection District's original ambulance, a 1972 Chevrolet Suburban.

Forward-looking infrared camera keeps North Routt ambulance patients safer on the way to the hospital

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— With the delivery of a new 2014 ambulance equipped with an infrared camera, drivers for North Routt Fire Rescue are better prepared than ever to avoid compounding one emergency with another.

“With the forward-looking infrared camera we can see elk and cattle on the road during a night transport," North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Mike Swinsick said. “The FLIR can see warm objects before our lights begin to illuminate the object. With all the cattle and elk on (Routt County Road) 129, we felt this was critical to help reduce our risk of having an impact while transporting a patient.”

North Routt's emergency vehicles never have struck a large mammal on the road, but they've had plenty of close calls involving hard braking.

The new ambulance, built on a Chevrolet K3500 chassis, has four-wheel drive, a big advantage in mountainous North Routt, and replaces a 1990 model ambulance. The final price for the new ambulance is $158,000, but the district made the purchase with the help of a 50 percent grant from Colorado Emergency Services.

“We try and get four-wheel drive on everything we have,” Swinsick said.

Swinsick said the infrared camera is connected to one of three small screens on the dashboard.

The ambulance “also has a cameras system in the action (patient) area and a back-up camera that comes on as soon as the vehicle is put in reverse,” he said. “The driver has these screens within a close peripheral vision area, so they don’t need to turn to look while driving.”

It just takes a close glance to see the heat signature of a black Angus cow or check to see that there’s nothing behind the ambulance.

The North Routt Fire District’s northern boundary ends at the historic hamlet of Columbine, but they’ve run beyond that on several occasions to pick up a patient at Three Forks Ranch, which straddles the Wyoming state line, Swinsick said. And his EMTs and firefighters know they often will be asked to travel on dirt roads that lead to large tracts of national forest.

District volunteers (Swinsick is a full-time chief) respond to wildland fires and have covered medical emergencies at remote King Solomon Falls.

“We’re small in population, but we cover 441 square miles,” Swinsick said. And in reality, the population of the district, which doesn’t include any incorporated towns, is busy on summer weekends, just like Steamboat is.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Steamboat Lake State Park sees more than 350,000 visitors annually, the large majority squeezed between the Memorial Day and Labor Day holiday weekends.

“Our ambulance calls are a majority of our calls; we average 110 a year,” Swinsick said. “I would say 60 percent would be medical.”

The new ambulance will be paired with a 2004 Ford model in regular service. There’s a third ambulance in the barn, but it doesn’t get dispatched any longer. Although it was decommissioned two years ago, district officials keep their original ambulance, a 1972 Chevy Suburban, to remind them of the days when rural ambulances weren’t so highly evolved.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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