Ambulance service lacking in rural Colorado

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Moffat County's EMS issues:

Moffat County has had its fair share of challenges when it comes to guaranteeing accessible health care and emergency services to the rural community.

Just this summer county officials scrambled to ensure that Dinosaur and the surrounding area would have ambulances. Something as simple as a ride to the hospital isn’t so simple in rural Moffat County.

Dinosaur had depended on Rangely District Hospital for about 60 years for an emergency drive to the hospital. But on June 1, Rangely Hospital sent a letter to officials in Western Moffat County, declaring they could not afford to run ambulances to that area after Aug. 31.

The Dinosaur Town Council and Moffat County Commissioners worked together to find the area a new provider, a private ambulance service, Gold Cross. It took them until Aug. 20 to solidify the plan. Gold Cross runs from Vernal, Utah, and will be able to cover the region that Rangely Hospital did.

— Erin Fenner, Craig Daily Press

A car swerves across the center-line and slams into you head-on in a sickening thud, a spray of glass, an exploding air bag.

You’re alive, but you’re hurt and you need help — fast. Someone calls 911. Who comes to render aid, how much training and experience they have and even how long it takes them to arrive will vary drastically, depending on where you are in Colorado.

So will your chances of living or dying.

That’s because in emergency medicine, minutes matter. And Colorado is a state with 82 percent of its 5.2 million people concentrated along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Pueblo. And a state with vast sweeps of rural land, including three of the country’s 15 least-populous counties.

Those realities have spawned a patchwork emergency medical system where a wide disparity exists between the on-the-ground care you could expect along a rural highway and what you would see along the urban Front Range.

It’s a state with dead zones, where no dedicated ambulance service exists. And a state where many rural communities are fighting to maintain even a basic emergency medical service.

“We struggle day in and day out,” said Sue Kern, the emergency medical system coordinator and coroner in Cheyenne County on the eastern plains, and director of nursing at Keefe Memorial Hospital in Cheyenne Wells.

I-News examined 10 years of traffic fatality data, compiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation, and then compared it to the average population in each county throughout a decade — calculating a rate equal to the number of deaths per 10,000 residents in road crashes.

The five counties with the highest rate of traffic fatalities — Mineral, Cheyenne, San Juan, Kiowa and Baca — all are small, remote counties, and four of them lost population in the first decade of the 21st century. Two of them are among the three Colorado counties with less than 1,000 residents.

On the flip side, the five counties with the lowest rate of traffic deaths — Arapahoe, Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas and Denver — are in the highly populated metropolitan area.

A new report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 55 percent of those who died in road crashes in 2011 lost their lives in rural areas, while only 19 percent of the population lived in rural areas.

In Colorado, 51 percent of those who died in 2011 crashes perished on rural roads, according to the same report.

Part of this disparity is the result of geography. Part is the result of philosophy — emergency care is concentrated where the most people live. And part is an outgrowth of Colorado’s long history of “local control” — where local officials figure out how best to care for those who suffer life-threatening traumatic injuries.

Also, many rural areas are served by volunteers whose dedication is not in question but whose training and experience may pale compared to their urban counterparts.

“If you live in urban Colorado, the response is quick,” said Randy Kuykendall, interim director of the state’s emergency medical system. “If you live in rural Colorado, it’s longer, and it’s a day-to-day struggle.”

And Kuykendall acknowledged that no one from the state has tried to determine exactly which areas fall into an emergency ambulance no-man’s-land — places where there is no contracted ambulance service. As it stands now, neighboring agencies respond into those areas.

But none of that matters when you’re injured. Minutes matter.

“The ‘Golden Hour’ is a real thing,” said Dr. Gregory Jurkovich, chief of surgery at Denver Health Medical Center. “The concept is valid — you have a limited amount of time before you’ve lost your opportunity to save someone’s life.”

Get hit head-on on Federal Boulevard, and you can expect that an ambulance operated by Denver Health will arrive in a matter of minutes, two highly trained paramedics on board. Get hit head-on in Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins, and it’s likely to be a very different experience.

First, you have to find a phone in an area with no cell service, said Bill Sears, president of the board of the Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District.

“In the lower part of the canyon, a couple of our volunteers work close, in the western part of Fort Collins, and they’re close enough that they can respond into the lower canyon in about — worst case is about half an hour,” Sears said. “If you’re bleeding to death, of course, that’s no consolation. But that’s the reality of being out in the boondocks.”

The backbone of Colorado’s on-the-ground emergency medical system is a patchwork of ambulances operated by more than 225 individual organizations — cities, hospitals, ambulance districts, fire districts, private companies — and the emergency medical technicians and paramedics who staff them.

Colorado is one of two states — California is the other — that leaves it to counties to license ambulance providers. And while the work of all those different organizations is coordinated by the state through 11 regional councils, there is no statewide oversight of such benchmarks as mandated response times.

Those seriously or critically injured are treated at a system of designated trauma centers, from Level 1, where the most grievously hurt are taken, to Level 5.

But in one part of the system after another, there are dramatic differences between the available care in urban and rural areas.

All three of the state’s existing Level 1 trauma centers are in the Denver area — Denver Health Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and St. Anthony Hospital.

And in much of rural Colorado, the wounded are likely to be treated by volunteer emergency medical technicians, who have to leave homes or jobs, respond to the garage where the ambulance is parked and then speed to an accident scene. Those EMTs — while highly dedicated — may initially have as little as 150 to 200 hours of training. Paramedics — such as those that staff all of the Denver Health emergency ambulances — have at least 1,500 hours of training.

Privately operated medical helicopters exist, but they are largely clustered along the Front Range — and often they aren’t called until initial responders have gotten to a scene and assessed the injured.

One area where the playing field has been leveled in recent years is equipment. Thanks to a $2 charge on each motor vehicle registration, the state has about $7.5 million per year to assist local jurisdictions as they need to update their equipment and train their members.

At the same time, there is nothing in Colorado law that obligates anyone to provide emergency medical services.

The dwindling population in many rural counties makes it more difficult for local organizations to raise money from a shrinking tax base or find volunteers willing to give up hours at a time for no pay.

Dramatically changing Colorado’s system would probably require a major infusion of money — most likely through taxes or fees or a combination of the two.

One state that has built such a system is Maryland. Motorists there pay $14.50 per year in vehicle registration fees that are dedicated to the state’s emergency medical system. The fee generates roughly $55 million per year, and it funds a fleet of seven medical helicopters based around the state and operated by the state police.

All operating expenses are covered by the vehicle registration fees, which also support the state’s EMS certification system and pays for a statewide medical communications system. According to the same federal report, 35 percent of those who died in auto crashes in Maryland in 2011 were on rural roads.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more information go to inewsnetwork.org or call 303-446-4932. Senior reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this report.

Comments

David Moore 1 year ago

Sounds like a great plan to me, I would be more than happy to pay an extra $14.50 on my registration to have money for emergency medical support. We live in a remote, dangerous place, why not give up a few more bucks to improve chances of survival in ones most desperate moments? You can count me in, heck, I'll pay $20 more.

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