Delayed Emergency Response

Minutes can make the difference between life and death — but does Denver Health know how to tell time?

If Denver Health calculated its response time from the moment call information is verified to the time an ambulance arrives at the scene, the average would be far different from the numbers the hospital reports. Using that criteria, in 2006 ambulances arrived in under 8 minutes and 59 seconds only 73 percent of the time. And in 2007, that percentage dropped to 67 percent — far below the acceptable standards required by the city contract.

When demand is low, paramedics usually meet the standard. But when demand is high — and the division is down to maybe six ambulances and two EMT cars to cover the entire city — the problem can become acute. "Sometimes it's not so bad, and sometimes it's horrendous," says a dispatcher, who adds that it's common knowledge that Denver Health has changed the time it starts the clock.

The dispatcher cites a recent call about a man in cardiac arrest at Denver International Airport. The hospital has paramedics at the airport, but they do not have ambulances to conduct transports — and the ambulance normally stationed at 48th Avenue and Chambers was already out on a call. "So we wound up calling for a private, but they got lost or whatever," says the dispatcher, and it took 48 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. By the time it did, the man was dead. "A lot of people were really pissed, and it was really difficult for the paramedics who were out there doing CPR on the guy for almost an hour," she adds.

Bob Petre wants Denver Health to play by the rules.
Mark manger
Bob Petre wants Denver Health to play by the rules.
Michael Hancock has asked for a review of response times.
Michael Hancock has asked for a review of response times.

Michael Hancock is still hoping that Denver Health authorizes an independent review of its paramedics division. In the meantime, the Denver Auditor's Office has started its study of both the fire department and paramedic division emergency performance; it hopes to conclude the review before the DNC arrives in August.

"We need to be able to attract the best, keep the best," says Petre. "We want to do what's right for the citizens and the people who risk their lives to go out and take care of patients. Unless Denver Health can prove clearly that they've been good stewards of this responsibility, the city should look at other system configurations to serve the citizens."

If Denver officials determine that the hospital is not holding to its agreement with the city — and has even recalculated how it defines response times — they have the power to revoke certain aspects of the contract.

"My sister died," says Hancock. "What I gleaned out of that is there is nothing more excruciating than waiting for an ambulance service when you have someone you really love struggling for life, or at least in your eyes having a chance to live if someone can get to them and administer support to them."

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