Pete Brandes, Vail Valley ambulance veteran, calling it a career
Brandes has been saving lives for more than three decades
EAGLE — It’s 5 a.m. and quiet as Pete Brandes sips his first cup of coffee and reads the news, his daily routine for more than three decades.
He’s chief operating officer for Eagle County Paramedic Services, so quiet moments don’t last long. His radio soon crackles with a car off Piney Road, a cardiac arrest in Edwards, a friend or friend’s son in bleeding Eagle.
In more than 5,200 calls each year, local paramedics have to arrive at the scene, size up the situation and carve out an intimate relationship with their patients — all in a few precious moments.
“When people call 911 it’s because they aren’t equipped to deal with what happened,” Brandes said. “We’re answering the question, ‘What happened today that made you call an ambulance?’”
Technology helps, but it’s no substitute for the gift of getting people to confide in the EMT on the scene.
“It’s not all about the medicine. We must develop a close personal relationship with someone, and do it in three minutes,” Brandes said.
He’s calling it a career next year.
Life and death have not changed
While the life and death scenarios have not changed, life in the Vail Valley has. In fact, it was the Eagle River Valley for centuries, before marketing departments decided to call it something else.
Brandes was 20 years old when he migrated to Eagle in 1976, then home to 800 souls. He landed a bartender job when he turned 21, and traveled and worked construction in the summers. The only Vail restaurants open in the offseason were McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Vail Village.
“The demographic has followed me. When I moved here, everyone was my age. Now, everyone is still my age,” Brandes said.
He started down the paramedic road while driving a mixer truck with Flatirons Construction. One of Flatirons’ corporate overlords declared that one of the crew should have some first aid training, and everyone pointed to Brandes.
The all-volunteer Eagle Community Ambulance Association in the lower valley recruited him and he was on his way. Ken Wilson was chief back then. Before that, Bob Shelton ran the local funeral home in Eagle and his hearse served as the ambulance, because, Brandes explains, a hearse and ambulance are roughly the same shape.
Working on friends and neighbors
Brandes was supposed to be an engineer, but that didn’t take. He earned his EMT certification and spent a couple of years in the 1980s hauling skiers off Vail Mountain and taking them to the hospital. He met his wife, Jane, when she was a nurse in Vail and he was working the ambulance. He migrated back downvalley for an EMT job.
Back then, ambulance crews ran about 60 or 70 calls a year. Brandes knew many of his patients. It took a toll.
“I got sick of working on my neighbors and friends,” Brandes said. “It’s tough doing CPR on someone you know.”
It’s better now
Ambulances have changed from Shelton’s hearse/ambulance. They’re now rolling emergency rooms that cost $250,000 each, and carry highly-trained two-person crews and an amazing array of life-saving gear.
Six years ago the Vail Valley’s two ambulance districts merged. It’s better, Brandes said. Now Eagle County’s population is creeping toward 53,000, according to U.S. Census estimates. “A great big small town,” Brandes calls it.
“Growth has pushed us to become more professional, more organized. It’s better,” he said.
Dr. Chip Woodland, an ER doctor at Vail Health, has worked with Brandes for 28 years.
“We both were in the trenches at the same time,” Woodland said. “If an ambulance with a patient under Pete’s care was headed to the ER we knew that patient was getting the very best care. He’s going to have a lasting positive impact on the quality of emergency medical health care here.”
Do the job, don’t be the job
Brandes keeps track of 65 employees and 13 ambulances for a district that spans 1,692 square miles. In addition to 911 calls, the district transports more than 500 critically ill and injured patients to Denver hospitals each year. Time has not made that drive any easier.
“Denver can seem awfully far away when you have to transport a critically ill or injured patient in those conditions,” Brandes said. “Fortunately we have some of the best trained and highest quality crews of any county this size in the nation.”
Speaking of jobs, Brandes did most of the hiring until a couple of years ago, as he began to relinquish the reins. He looks for a sense of responsibility, common sense and the intelligence to do what’s best for the patient when they’re on the scene. They can discuss details later.
That personnel philosophy — “The best way not to have a problem is not to hire one” — usually works, Brandes said.
“If I can leave the job and no one notices, I’ll have done well,” Brandes said.
Eagle County Ambulance District CEO Chris Montera knows he’ll have large shoes to fill once Brandes retires. “We hope we can find someone with the same professional experience and work ethic,” he said. “It won’t be easy. A guy like Pete doesn’t come along very often.”
He gets the question all the time, “What are you going to do?”
“I could have retired 20 years ago and not get all done that I want to do,” Brandes said.
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