Denver ambulances using wrong response time standard, says Denver Auditor

Denver Health, the city’s safety-net hospital, has been operating its ambulance service under an inadequate response-time standard, according the city watchdog.

The Denver Auditor’s Office on Thursday issued an alert to Mayor John Hickenlooper and various Safety Department agencies, warning that Denver Health paramedics are striving to hit response-time goals that are below national regulations.

A lengthy investigation published by Westword in June revealed that Denver Health’s ambulance system was failing to meet the basic response-time standards established in its operating agreement with the city –- resulting in delays that, in some neighborhoods, stretched upwards of thirty to forty minutes.

But according to the auditor, the standards the hospital failed to meet are too low to begin with. Under its own rules, the Paramedic Division is expected to arrive at scenes within 8 minutes and 59 seconds 85 percent of the time. But the code established by the National Fire Protection Association has a higher standard of 90 percent.

Officials at Denver Health have argued that since the NFPA isn’t a federal agency -- it’s a non-profit that establishes the codes followed by public safety departments internationally -- the response-time standards don’t automatically apply to all public health agencies. But the Auditor’s alert points out that Denver has adopted NFPA guidelines as the basic Fire Code. This ordinance includes sections “that applies the Denver Fire Code to the City’s emergency response system, which involves Denver Health and includes the City’s 9-1-1 Emergency Communication’s Center in addition to the Denver Fire Department.”

Auditor officials are in the midst of a ten-month review of emergency-response performance of both the Denver Fire Department and the city’s paramedic division. They're expected to release their findings in December. This two-page alert was released early because Denver Health officials are currently negotiating the operating agreement filed annually with the city. If the auditors' call is heeded, it would mark the first time in a decade that ambulance response standards in Denver are raised, rather than systematically weakened. – Jared Jacang Maher

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Jared Jacang Maher