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Delayed and diverted: Denver’s cry for help

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Posted at 1:37 PM, Dec 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-30 19:18:49-05

DENVER — For more than a year, Denver7 Investigates spoke with frustrated Denver firefighters and paramedics who were blowing the whistle on a concerning culture inside the paramedic division at Denver Health.

Denver Health paramedics first started coming forward in July 2021, telling Denver7 Investigates that they were pressured by higher-ups to bring critically injured patients back to Denver Health over closer, qualified hospitals with Level One trauma centers. Denver Health has a contract to serve the entire city of Denver with EMS services.

Emails from some of these trauma centers to Denver Health questioning why a patient was taken to Denver Health instead of their hospital, obtained by Denver7 Investigates, backed up their stories.

Delayed and diverted: Denver’s cry for help

One particular complaint stood out: the story of 11-year-old Aundrea Plunkett, who was hit by a car while riding her bike in 2016 outside her home in Englewood. A report from a firefighter noted his concern over a decision to transport her to Denver Health, more than six miles away, over Swedish Medical Center, which was roughly two miles away.

That trip took more than 17 minutes. Aundrea did not survive her injuries.

Related: Denver7 Investigates | Aundrea's Final Ride: A culture in question

Then, current and former firefighters came forward, expressing concern over long wait times for ambulances and Denver Fire’s inability to administer advanced life-saving techniques such as administering IVs.

Unlike other departments with fire-based Emergency Medical Services, Denver firefighters were prohibited from performing certain duties, with some saying they could do nothing but form a “circle of hope” while they waited for paramedics to arrive.

Data compiled by the Denver Fire Department and obtained exclusively by Denver7 Investigates showed that firefighters waited on scene for ambulances for more than 10 minutes roughly 8,000 times in 2021. In more than 100 cases, the wait time surpassed 40 minutes.

“It just feels like we had our hands tied behind our backs,” former Denver firefighter and paramedic Kevin Apuron previously told Denver7 Investigates. “If the ambulance was delayed or didn’t show up for a long period of time, there wasn’t much for us to do while we were waiting.”

But now, about 18 months after Denver7 Investigates began reporting on these issues, change has come.

In just the past few months, Denver Health has a new CEO following the retirement of former CEO Robin Wittenstein and the medical director who oversaw the paramedic division has announced his resignation.

A new operating agreement changes policy to allow the Denver Fire Department to provide some advanced life-saving techniques, including administering IVs.

New CEO Donna Lynne, the state’s former lieutenant governor, said she believes the people of Denver are going to start seeing better collaboration.

“This is a big deal, a big change,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said.

In November, Hancock announced some of these changes, which were applauded by sources who had come forward in previous Denver7 Investigates reports.

“I think that’s recognition that, you know, it’s a new chapter,” Lynne said.

That new operating agreement includes nearly three dozen changes. In addition to the ability to administer IVs, firefighters will see additional training to provide more life-saving techniques.

“I know in my heart this is going to be better for our organization,” Denver Fire Chief Desmond Fulton said. "It’s going to be better for Denver Health and, most important, better for the patients we serve.”

Fulton also credited Denver7 Investigates’ reporting for helping to spur these changes.

“Not only do the citizens have you to thank for this … you’ve found ways we could be better as a fire department and you found ways where we could better the way we performed patient care,” he said. “And it was because of that tenacity and that awareness that you gave us the opportunity to be better ourselves and I appreciate that.”

In this 30-minute special, viewers will see how we got here as we revisit the reports that detailed these issues and helped spur change to improve healthcare for the citizens of Denver.

“The most important thing is the people of Denver get the care that they deserve,” Paramedic Zev Indich told Denver7 Investigates during a recent ride-along.