Paramedics, firefighters future roommates?
Those concerns have lead the two largest upvalley emergency service agencies – the Eagle River Fire Protection District and the Eagle County Ambulance District – to begin discussions Tuesday on a future that may include a merger.
“I think common sense is prevailing,” Eagle County Commissioner Mike Gallagher says. “It’s simply an issue of how many millions of dollars taxpayers want to give organizations that could do their jobs cheaper together.”
The Eagle River Fire District covers the county from Dowd Junction to Wolcott, including Minturn and Red Cliff. Vail has its own Fire Department. The Ambulance District, meanwhile, treats patients from Vail Pass to Wolcott and north to Bond and McCoy, where a volunteer fire/rescue service has recently been formed. The ambulances also spend a lot of time on the road transporting patients to Denver hospitals.
The boards of directors of the two agencies will meet in Edwards Tuesday afternoon. Donna Barnes, chairwoman of the Ambulance District’s board, says the paramedics’ wider jurisdiction could be an impediment to a merger.
“We’ve got a larger area that we serve right now than they do,” Barnes says.
The talks will likely focus on how the two agencies can share the capital costs of construction and similar expenses, she says.
The two agencies have been planning a joint station in the Village at Avon shopping and resident complex. Barnes says the developer has identified a piece of land where the station could be built.
The chiefs of both services also say talk of a merger may be a little premature.
“I don’t know that we’re going to talk hard about mergers,” Eagle River Fire Chief Charlie Moore says. “We’ll talk about where (Emergency Medical Services) ought to be going and see if there’s a reason to change things to create more efficiency – or if we should leave things the way they are.”
Moore says Eagle County’s split system dates back to when the area was more rural, many of the fire departments were volunteer and the only ambulance was stationed in Vail.
Back then, the fire departments –in Edwards, for instance – often responded more quickly to a medical emergency and stabilized a patient to await the arrival of the ambulance, Moore says.
“We still have this problem in more remote areas, where we may still need a two-tiered system,” Moore says.
Today, firefighters from two different departments are stationed in East Vail, Vail Village, Eagle-Vail, Avon and Edwards. Ambulances are stationed next to the Vail Valley Medical Center and in Edwards.
“If somebody suggests something to improve patient care, we’re all ears,” says Lyn Morgan, director of the Eagle County Ambulance District. “The only thing we’re interested in is delivering the best health care to our citizens, and we’re certainly willing to listen to anything that might improve that.”
Last May, voters within the Ambulance District approved a property-tax hike to give the ambulances more money. That helped the district cope with emergency calls that have increased 8 percent each year over the last decade. The jump in funding also allowed the district in November to add a permanent, 12-hour-a-day ambulance to its two 24-hour ambulances, Morgan says.
“That ambulance has been fully utilized,” Morgan says. “We put it in about the right time and it’s been fully used since then.”
The ambulance service gets half its funding from property taxes and the other half from billing patients.
Gallagher says he’s “encouraged” the two agencies are opening talks.
“They go to the same place at the same time,” Gallagher says. “Different levels of expertise are certainly brought to bear, but that doesn’t mean they can’t stay in the same station and share some of the costs.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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