Gunnison Valley Health looks to upgrade EMS station

$8.5M facility would be funded through grants, county and hospital

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

While Gunnison Valley residents might reasonably expect emergency medical services (EMS) to be there when needed, the system currently in operation under Gunnison Valley Health appears to need extensive updates to infrastructure. GVH representatives presented a troubled picture to Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday, September 14 about how Gunnison Valley Health Paramedics operate from an outdated, undersized and inadequate headquarters, and showed initial sketches of what a new station could look like in closer proximity to the hospital and with consolidated sleeping quarters for EMS professionals on duty. Commissioners indicated they would support a new station by contributing financially and assisting with grant applications for the proposed $8.5 million project in Gunnison.

Despite a crowded space and challenging layout, commissioners and outgoing hospital CEO Rob Santilli praised the EMS department for its excellent response and award-winning services in recent years. Santilli asked that the county consider contributing $2 million to a new station, which GVH would match, and then work with the hospital in applying for grants to fund the additional $4.5 million in projected costs. The new station would be located at North Taylor and East Denver Avenue in Gunnison, easily accessible and visible from the Gunnison Valley Health campus.

The current EMS headquarters in Gunnison, a steel prefab modular shell designed in 1998, has no sleeping quarters for on-call personnel and only holds about half the equipment they use, explained GVH chief of EMS CJ Malcolm.

“Our paramedics are being housed in condos about 200 yards from the apparatus. We are responding in about 6 to 7 minutes,” said Malcolm of many calls that come in. He said furthermore, paramedics sometimes fall on snow and ice trying to reach the EMS vehicle station in order to respond quickly. There have been several injuries. “We don’t have a place to garage half our equipment,” he added.
Malcolm also described that the current station lacks a space to adequately train personnel, especially at the critical care level. “They need a space to eat crew meals together, to debrief, to plan for missions and to take care of the insane amount of administrative work that is involved in EMS,” he added.

Malcolm said morale remains high, and “we take culture very seriously.” But he said the environmental factor can bring them down, and they try to keep perspective by considering what EMS is like in third world countries and recognizing how much better they have it relative to many places.

The new station would improve patient response times, safety, satisfaction rates and outcomes and expand EMS services, including community services such as first aid training, said Malcolm. It would also have sleeping quarters for on-call personnel, which would free up several condominium units the hospital owns at the corner of Colorado Street and Denver Avenue. Those had been designed for transitional employee housing for the hospital system, but three of them have been temporarily dedicated for overnight on-duty EMS personnel. Santilli expressed that it would be helpful to provide that as transitional employee housing again as originally intended.
Santilli said GVH is pursuing project funding from several entities within the Gunnison Valley, from part-time and local residents, local businesses, private foundations and government. They also intend to apply for a USDA emergency rural health care grant program, which could potentially fund up to 50 percent of the project.

“One of our asks today is that the USDA grant has to come through the county,” said Santilli.

County manager Matthew Birnie suggested the county’s financial contribution could be done over a period of 10 years, with an annual contribution of $200,000 for example, but he said it couldn’t be a $2 million check. He also suggested engaging the county’s finance team and making sure the facility is efficient, using its design protocols such as geothermal energy.

Commissioner Roland Mason asked if the new station plans included the traditional fireman’s pole. Malcom responded that poles are out of favor in EMS these days due to knee injuries. “But slides are in,” he said.

Commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck asked about a contingency plan if the grant doesn’t come through.

Santilli said an assessment of total project funding needs should be finalized in October. Among the feedback he has heard for alternatives is the suggestion that EMS should simply be a county service. He said other possibilities are to scale back the station plans, or do it in phases. “Beyond that I don’t think there are many options,” he said.

Commissioners all expressed their general support. Houck said he recognized that the EMS is operating at a high, award-winning level and the need to upgrade things will help support that continual level of care. He said the level of care the community gets is all the more impressive considering that, “You all are doing that with a restricted facility.”

Santilli said the reality is that the EMS system does require subsidies. “It’s easy to assume GVH paramedics are available 24/7. The reality is that rural EMS districts are increasingly vulnerable to scaling back or in some cases, even eliminating service,” he said. “I think it’s an area where there is vulnerability over time.”

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