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Ambulance crews care for growing Eagle Valley

Kathy Heicher
Eagle Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/EnterpriseEMT Rob Sbarra drives an ambulance for the Western Eagle County Ambulance District, the annual budget of which has grown from $149,000 to $1.9 million over the last 20 years.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Twenty years ago, ambulance service in the west end of the Eagle Valley consisted of a few volunteer emergency medical technicians, an aging vehicle and an slim budget.

“It was really a struggle,” says Ron Foss, one of those EMTs who faced the challenge of providing emergency medical service to a growing rural community.

Volunteer EMTs often found it difficult to keep up with continuing education requirements. Although most employers were supportive, the EMTs couldn’t always take off from their day job when an emergency call came in. Attempts to operate the service on the revenues that came from ambulance runs always fell short, requiring an infusion of funds from various community sources.

That all changed 20 years ago.

Recognizing that the needs of the community were outpacing the capabilities of the Eagle Community Ambulance Association, in 1988 community leaders suggested creating a special taxing district in the west end of the valley to fund ambulance operations.

The cause was justified enough that downvalley citizens voted for higher taxes. The proposal passed by a 219-37 vote margin.

In a time when similar ambulance services in rural parts of the state are struggling to stay financially viable, the Western Eagle County Ambulance District is a thriving, professional organization, says Chris Montera, the district’s chief.

“In rural Colorado there are ambulance services closing every year due to lack of funding. The taxpayers had the foresight 20 years ago to say we need this,” says Montera.

Every time the ambulance district has come back to the public seeking help in the form of a tax increase, the response has been supportive.

Montera estimates that the owner of a $500,000 home in the district pays about $200 a year in taxes to the ambulance district. Recently, Eagle County and the towns of Eagle and Gypsum adopted impact fees on new development that has generated money for capital projects, including a new ambulance station in Gypsum and the purchase of new ambulances.

What the citizens get for that money is 17 full-time and 11 part-time employees. Twenty-seven of those employees are certified at various EMT levels; and the majority of the full-time staff is certified at the paramedic level. The fleet includes four ambulances and a backcountry response vehicle.

And like the community it serves, the ambulance district has experienced phenomenal growth. Annual calls for service increased from 208 in 1988 to 1,237 last year. During the same period, the annual budget grew from $149,000 to $1.9 million.

Montera says the district attracts most of its employees through word of mouth. Crews work for two days and then have four days off. The ambulance stations at Eagle and Gypsum have living quarters but nobody counts on a full night’s sleep while on shift, because the calls are constant.

Average wages run from $45,000 annually for an EMT to $55,000 for a paramedic. Employees have to meet continuing education requirements.

“It is proven that people who are right there, and who are trained, result in the best patient outcomes,” Montera says.

When hiring EMTs, Montera looks for community-oriented people with positive attitudes and plenty of energy.

“I can train anybody to do emergency medical care,” he says. “I can’t train them to be a nice person.”

In an attempt to recruit and retain workers, the district’s board of directors committed recently to setting aside $200,000 annually for the next five years to help employees with down-payments on housing.

Community outreach programs are also a priority. The twice-a-month “Heartsaver” CPR/AED classes are popular with local businesses and organizations. The classes are offered free of charge.

The ambulance crews also offer monthly car -seat fitting clinics for parents as well as the bicycle helmet program for kids. During Emergency Medical Services Week, the crews visit kindergarten classes to talk about the importance of booster seats.

The crews are also on standby for special events such as rodeos and community celebrations. In total, the staff provides more than 1,000 hours of community service annually.

As he reflects on the district’s 20th anniversary, Montera says he confident his crews can keep up with the increasing needs of a growing community.

“I’m excited for the future,” he says.


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