Providing emergency service in Routt County poses challenges
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Routt County emergency responders are experiencing a problem that affects rural communities nationwide: emergency calls have increased, but there aren’t always enough personnel to handle those calls.
The amount of emergency calls to the Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue increased by 24 percent from 2009 to 2018, according to data from the fire department. During that same period, the number of firefighters went up by just 2 percent.
Fire protection districts across Routt County respond not just to fire incidents but to medical emergencies as well. They rely on volunteers to form the bulk of their response teams, most of whom also work full-time jobs.
“Everyone is concerned about being late to respond,” said David “Mo” DeMorat, director of the Routt County Office of Emergency Management.
This represents a broader issue of how the U.S. manages firefighting and emergency medical service. EMS does not receive the same financial support as law enforcement, namely federal grants and advocacy from a federal agency.
Fire districts across the county have different funding sources. Steamboat Springs firefighters rely on revenue from the city’s sale taxes, which can vary from year to year. The North Routt Fire Protection District receives funding primarily through mill levies.
A lack of personnel has forced districts across Routt County to coordinate their resources.
“It’s not uncommon where they help each other out,” DeMorat said.
For the most part, he said that coordination among fire districts has worked well with volunteers donating their time to local emergencies.
More problems arise during wildfire season, when firefighters may be battling flames for multiple days. For a volunteer, setting aside that much time is difficult.
“He needs to take time off work to do this for an extended amount of time,” DeMorat said of his volunteers.
Another issue arises when fire districts get multiple emergency calls at the same time. Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue had a 64 percent increase in concurrent calls from 2009 to 2018.
Because Steamboat has more firefighters on hand than other surrounding districts, local firefighters can usually handle two calls at once. Any more will likely require additional personnel from surrounding districts.
“When you’re talking about more rural districts, if they get a second call, they either need support or they have a delayed response,” DeMorat said.
Mike Swinsick, fire chief of the North Routt Fire Protection District, said the summer months pose the greatest challenge to his district’s personnel.
During that period, the district receives calls from people needing an ambulance transport from Steamboat Lake State Park, but Swinsick would not have enough staff to do the transport.
“We would have to rely on a park staff person to drive the ambulance for us,” he said.
Fire districts in other states are seeing a similar lack of volunteers. In Pennsylvania, about 300,000 people volunteered as firefighters in the 1970s, according to a commission of the state’s lawmakers, municipal officials and emergency service professionals. In 2018, the state had just 38,000 volunteer firefighters.
“In today’s society, it’s so hard for people to volunteer,” Swinsick said, pointing to how both heads of a household now work full-time jobs and many people hold a part-time position on top of that.
A mill levy passed last spring will enable his district to hire another full-time firefighter and two part-time personnel. Currently, North Routt has about three to five volunteers available Monday through Friday.
All of the district’s volunteers have basic EMT training. For more serious medical emergencies, such as advanced life support, Swinsick relies on more trained firefighters from Steamboat Springs.
“If you take one bad incident, it can stretch our services pretty quickly,” he said.
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Katie Lee graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming in communications last spring, but as summer started, she hadn’t yet found a job.