The Durango Fire Protection District is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new ambulance that will be used specifically for long-range transports.
The ambulance is part of DFRA’s Inter-Facility Transport program. A vast majority of patients transported as part of the IFT program are people in need of inpatient mental health care who must be transported to locations with greater resources such as Grand Junction or, more frequently, Denver or Colorado Springs.
The arrival date of the ambulance is still unknown as global supply chain shortages have led to a delay in the construction of ambulance chassis.
The ambulance will replace a unit purchased for the program in early 2019. Although DFPD typically keeps ambulances for upward of seven years, the department put more than 190,000 miles on the unit purchased for the IFT program in less than four years and has decided to replace it.
DFPD will pay for the new vehicle using $275,000 of the $10.9 million that La Plata County received as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka said all three county commissioners were supportive of the expenditure.
“Public health is an important matter for all three of us, and so when this proposal was brought forth, to us it was a no-brainer – it was needed,” Salka said. “We were gladly able to help, especially using American Rescue Plan Funds.”
DFPD and Mercy Hospital established the IFT program in October 2018 with significant internal support – its rapid approval within the DFPD meant that at the time of the program’s inception, there was no ambulance available to dedicate to long-range transports.
“They (Mercy) were meeting their part of this community need and the part that really wasn’t being met was the ground transport,” said EMS Battalion Chief Scott Sholes.
Before the establishment of the program, patients had fewer and far-less optimal options. In the best of scenarios, Axis Health System would provide transportation with a counselor. In the worst instances, patients would be transported in patrol cars, by air, or not at all. Sholes also noted that in dire circumstances, patients would sometimes be transported by a private Montrose-based ambulance service, which garnered horror stories of aggressive billing.
“We got in the middle of it and said, ‘This is our community, we owe it to our community to have a solid program that is affordable to everybody involved, that is the right level of care for the right patients,’and we did it,” Sholes said. “I’m very proud of the service that we have been providing here for the last few years. Now I just want to make sure we continue to pay for it.”
The contract between Mercy Hospital and DFPD stipulates that Mercy will reimburse DFPD for any accrued personnel costs associated with transports in exchange for DFPD providing the vehicle and staff members. Sholes emphasized that neither party was entirely clear about how vast the need for the IFT service was before the program’s establishment.
“We’ve used it two to three times as often as we anticipated we would,” Sholes said. “... Our intent was to enter into this new program with the commitment of this initial capital expense ... but down the road we would need to seek other funding to replace those units. It just happened that the need came up faster than anybody ever thought.”
The program completed 109 long-range transports in 2019 and 2020, 151 in 2021 and is on track to hit last year’s numbers again by the end of 2022.
The ambulance – both the one currently in use and the incoming vehicle – is stocked and configured identically to the department’s nine other ambulances. When the unit has not been scheduled for a long-distance transport, the department occasionally uses the unit to respond to nearby emergencies.
DFPD retains a separate group of EMTs for the unit who work 12-hour shifts and are not required to have any experience fighting fire at the time of hire. In line with the department’s unique safety protocols for the unit, its staff is not required to be on duty at night because policy prohibits initiating transfers at night. Each trip receives a safety score before the department accepts a transfer, taking stock of factors such as distance, weather and patient condition.
“We put safety first and foremost,” Sholes said. “Now we just want to get them in a new ambulance.”