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Firefighters sound the alarm on understaffing, delays from Denver Health paramedics in responding to calls

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Posted at 9:50 PM, Feb 21, 2022

DENVER — Multiple Denver firefighters are sounding an alarm and expressing frustration regarding understaffing and delays from Denver Health paramedics in responding to emergency calls.

Denver7 Investigates has uncovered several internal emails from the Denver Fire Department questioning the response times of Denver Health paramedics, with some saying they have waited more than 30 minutes on scene before an ambulance arrived.

“It happens all the time,” said one veteran Denver firefighter. “When you see people die in your hands, it weighs heavier on you, which is why I am happy to be here and have this conversation.”

The firefighter spoke to Denver7 Investigates in silhouette and with his voice disguised because he was not authorized by the department to speak with the media.

Denver7 obtained emails from Denver Fire staff through an open records request, which confirm the anonymous firefighter’s concerns. Denver Health is contracted with the city to provide paramedic services throughout Denver.

One from October 2021 notes that Denver Fire waited 25 minutes for an ambulance on a call and noted “a trend of waiting longer and longer for ambulances is concerning. … Today’s response is simply unacceptable.”

Another email from September 2021 states the paramedics waited 30 minutes for an ambulance and stated “this issue has been getting worse over the past two months.”

In May, a firefighter complained about the response to an auto accident where a patient was unconscious. The email states that “I was also told (Denver Health) had no ambulances available.”

“The emails are saying what we all know,” the firefighter said. “There has been a long-time problem with how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive on scene.”

RELATED: City leaders call for answers, accountability from Denver Health

Denver Fire Chief Desmond Fulton said the emails “speak volumes,” and that he understands the frustrations of his firefighters as he has been out on calls and noticed issues with response times.

Fulton said he has seen previous Denver7 Investigates stories on Denver Health that highlighted what some paramedics said is a culture issue within the agency. In anonymous interviews, they said paramedics are pressured to bring high-level trauma cases back to Denver Health over closer facilities that offer Level 1 care.

“I would say based on your reports, you’ve identified numerous problems,” Fulton said.

Fulton also discussed one particular complaint with Denver7 Investigates.

In November 2021, a firefighter sent an internal email complaint regarding a call for a head injury from a domestic violence incident in the 2300 block of Curtis Street.

In the email, the firefighters stated that the patient wanted to go to the hospital, but several ambulances were diverted. According to the email, a paramedic who arrived in an SUV advised the patient that she would probably get to the hospital faster if she walked because St. Joseph’s Hospital is “four blocks away.”

The hospital was actually more than a mile away, roughly 14 blocks, from where the woman was injured.

“There would never be a plausible reason to tell a person to walk 14 blocks to a hospital,” Desmond said.

Denver7 Investigates walked the distance from the scene to St. Joseph’s and it took more than 21 minutes.

Denver Health Chief Paramedic Gary Bryskiewicz said he reviewed that call and concluded that his team did nothing wrong. Bryskiewicz noted that he did not speak with the firefighter who made the complaint or the paramedic who responded to that call.

“I believe in our people and I trust them,” he said.

He added that he didn’t feel like the Denver firefighter had “the entire story.”

Denver7 requested a database of all ambulance response times during the past six months. The hospital declined the request, stating that the response times were not available under the state’s open records laws.

“It feels like a regular problem,” the firefighter said. “We don’t have the information to know how often it happens. Talk to any firefighter, talk to any paramedic, they know it happens all the time.”

In hearing the complaints from Denver firefighters, Bryskiewicz said he saw “an opportunity for all of us to do better as an EMS safety team.”

Denver Health did admit that for the second time in the past 22 years, its ambulances failed to meet the standard of arriving on scene in less than nine minutes on 90% of its calls.

“We will do better,” Bryskiewicz said.

Another source of the frustration from multiple Denver firefighters comes from the fact that between 50 and 60 current firefighters are licensed and trained as paramedics but Denver Health’s leadership team does not allow them to use the advanced life support skills to treat patients before Denver Health paramedics arrive on scene.

Denver Health said it will add four more ambulances and 33 front-line EMS providers this year in hopes of improving its response times.