EMS staffing shortages put strain on Routt County first responders during multiple emergencies Thursday

Emergency trucks surround the scene of a two-car crash Thursday on Fish Creek Falls Road near its intersection with Third Street, behind Old Town Hot Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Several concurrent emergencies Thursday evening put a strain on emergency response resources and highlighted the tangible effect of low staffing levels, according to local officials.

A 26-year-old Steamboat Springs man was pronounced dead at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center following a car crash Thursday.

Routt County Coroner Robert Ryg identified the man as Noah Licknovsky. Licknovsky, the driver of the Subaru involved in the crash, was found unconscious at the scene. Licknovsky’s passenger, a 28-year-old male, was ejected from the vehicle, according to Steamboat Springs Police Department Sgt. Rich Brown. The man has not been identified but was treated for serious injuries.

Brown said neither man was wearing a seat belt, and consistent with evidence at the scene, it is believed alcohol, drugs and speed were factors in the crash.

On the same day around the same time, public safety officials responded to an unattended death in the 400 block of Eighth Street in Steamboat. Ryg said Friday afternoon that it was “too early” to determine if foul play was involved. The coroner’s office is awaiting results of the woman’s autopsy along with a toxicology report.

Despite local police and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation investigating the death, it has not officially been ruled a criminal investigation, according to officials, who said there’s no current threat to public safety.

Brown said officers are still investigating the death and have not yet released a name or other details.

When Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue crews were called to both incidents, Chief Chuck Cerasoli said they had to ask for help from West Routt Fire Rescue. Cerasoli said that is becoming a larger problem for the fire district, which covers all of Steamboat and much of unincorporated Routt County.

“The bigger picture is an accident like that, with two critical patients and one serious patient, is over-taxing for our system,” Cerasoli said of the Thursday crash.

Cerasoli said the department currently has two ambulances on duty at all times, so when firefighters are called to an incident involving multiple people or serious injuries, they often have to call for help from surrounding districts.

“The tough part is every single call is different; some calls require one ambulance, others that have multiple patients require a lot more people,” Cerasoli said. “That’s operating on the edge for us.”

Cerasoli said the department has 25 firefighters, with eight on each shift. The department strives to have two paramedics on duty at all times, with one onboard each ambulance. Every firefighter is cross-trained in basic emergency medical services, meaning they can administer certain lifesaving medications and perform basic medical procedures.

To address the strain on the department, Steamboat City Council has proposed four new firefighters in its 2022 budget, which would add one to each shift and one to help with back fill needs. The four new firefighters are part of a phased approach the city is taking toward growing the department.

While Steamboat has plans to grow its department, West Routt Fire Protection District, which heavily relies on volunteer EMTs, has struggled to retain and recruit volunteers, and that has contributed to longer response times.

“It is getting tougher for us to get an ambulance out the door,” West Routt Fire Protection Assistant Chief Brad Parrott said. “People are getting busier, the world is getting crazier, so it’s tougher for people to find time to come down and volunteer as an EMT.”

While Parrott said the district’s call volume is still lower than that of more urban districts, COVID-19 and the repeated Interstate 70 closures rerouting drivers through Hayden brought more medical calls than the department has received in previous years.

“A lot of people would pull over on the side of the highway when they have a medical emergency and call 911,” Parrott said. “This whole area is kind of getting busier, we’re getting more and more people moving in here.”

Parrott said the district has 25 firefighters, 12 of whom are cross-trained to handle medical calls, though the town has an initiative on the November ballot asking voters to approve a mill levy to hire three more EMTs.

“Right now, we don’t have the ability to get an ambulance out in 2 minutes or less all of the time,” Parrott said. “That’s a problem.”

While Parrott said it is difficult to measure exact response times, firefighters are usually able to leave within 2 minutes during the day and 5-7 minutes at night, though the time it takes to get from the station in Hayden to parts of the district varies heavily, as the district is 240 square miles, running as far west as the Moffat County and Wyoming border and as far south as Rio Blanco County.

Oak Creek Fire Rescue Chief Brady Glauthier said his department faces similar staffing issues, which he attributed to the department’s low call volume and minimal funding.

“Luckily we don’t have a large call volume compared to Steamboat, so we don’t see the back-to-back calls that Steamboat sees, but when we do, it’s an issue because we don’t have any depth,” Glauthier said.

The department has six full-time firefighters, with eight volunteers. All full-time firefighters are cross-trained to work as EMTs, though the department has no official paramedics, which is the most advanced level of EMT.

Glauthier said it is difficult for small, rural departments to staff EMTs because of a lack of funding, so the department recently applied for a $45,000 grant from the state to send its career staff to advanced EMT school.

“We try to do the best we can with training, but nothing beats actual hands-on doing,” Glauthier said.

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