Colo. fire dept. struggling with increasing call volume

Chief Shawn Shelton said if the current trend continues, he anticipates surpassing 25,000 calls a year by 2020 and the department may have to start holding calls

By Ryan Severance
The Pueblo Chieftain

PUEBLO, Colo. — With calls for service continuing to soar at the Pueblo Fire Department, Chief Shawn Shelton told City Council on Monday night that the department is inching toward the maximum number of calls it can handle and, if the trend continues, the department may have to start holding calls.

The fire department responded to nearly 23,000 calls for service in 2017. In 1990, when staffing at the department was similar to what it is now, there were 5,830 calls, Shelton said at a council work session. Just 10 years ago, the department was receiving fewer than 12,000 calls for service annually.

The first time calls edged over 20,000 was in 2014.

Shelton said if current trends continue, he anticipates surpassing 25,000 calls a year by 2020, a number that could enter the range of being untenable for the department.

“We are currently able to answer nearly all of our calls for service as they come in,” Shelton said. “It will not be long before we will need to start holding calls.”

One of the reasons for the increasing amount of calls? People who use the 911 telephone number for non-emergencies.

Shelton has told council before that a sizable number of poor people in the city use 911 to get to local emergency rooms for a range of nonemergency problems. The department in the last couple of years went on calls more than 200 times to assist one particular homeless man. A compassionate firefighter eventually bought that man a plane ticket back to North Carolina so he could be cared for by his family.

To go about tackling that issue, the department in 2016 instituted a program called Directing Others to Service, which assists in helping those who call 911 numerous times during the course of the year find resources and services that address their core issues, which oftentimes have simple solutions that don’t require an ambulance ride or emergency room visit. Last year through the DOTS program, the fire department interacted with 18 people and saw a reduction of 138 calls for service from those individuals.

But Shelton said the department needs funding to expand the DOTS program.

“It is currently run by a dedicated group of firefighters that do it in addition to their regular duties,” Shelton said of the program. “Even though this team is committed to making a difference, there are limits to the amount of time they can dedicate to the program. Additionally, the program is funded through the overtime budget, which is limited as well.”

Shelton said the fire department will be adding staffing through a federal grant that council has approved to form what Shelton described as three focused response units that will begin answering calls beginning around July.

The focused response units will work four 10hour shifts and respond to lower level emergency calls in pickup trucks equipped with basic first aid and firefighting equipment.

Shelton said he expects the units to be able to handle 6,000-plus calls.

He also mentioned the possibility of expanding the DOTS program through the focused response units.

“We really think they can capture a huge block of those calls,” Shelton said.

Finally, Shelton said, the department will bring a proposal to council later this year to purchase and implement priority dispatching.

“It will allow us to segregate calls into emergency and less than emergent categories,” Shelton said. “We’re working to form a partnership to hand off less than emergent calls.”

The possibilities for that partnership Shelton mentioned Monday are a nurse in dispatch, telemedicine, which is a remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology; and community paramedicine, which allows paramedics and emergency medical technicians to operate in expanded roles to provide routine healthcare services.

Copyright 2018 The Pueblo Chieftain

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