Come the new year, Evergreen will be the hub for all things emergency-related this side of the Jeffco Sheriff's Office.
It's all part of "regionalization," a nationwide push to bring emergency agencies together under one roof, system or organization to better coordinate response over an extended area. And when that area is prone to wildfires — or flooding — a little reorganization is designed to go a long way.
Currently, area 911 calls go to the Sheriff's Office first, said Evergreen Fire Chief Mike Weege. Once it's determined which fire district a call is from, dispatch routes the call and then notifies surrounding districts when help is needed. Meanwhile, other districts might already be talking with or coordinating efforts with the district in need of assistance, mucking up communications and possibly delaying response times.
Under the new system, the Foothills, Elk Creek, Inter-Canyon, Indian Hills and North Fork districts will be under one umbrella, with Evergreen Fire/Rescue as the center for all communications and distribution of manpower and equipment, Weege said. By cutting out the middleman, the districts will save valuable time not only in transferring phone calls but in coordinating responses, handling administrative tasks and staffing more effectively, he said.
"Resources are the biggest thing," said Christy McCormick, the chief dispatcher at Evergreen Fire/Rescue. "I'm talking about trucks, water, personnel. Everything will happen quicker and seamlessly, so it will ultimately benefit anybody that lives in any of these districts.”
Call volume and costs
Without the changes, the Evergreen district alone was expected to field about 2,700 emergency calls in 2014. That number is predicted to double as EFR dispatches for the five other districts as well.
EFR’s costs for handling the additional call volume will be covered by the 911 fee on residents’ phone bills. But instead of that revenue going to the Jeffco Emergency Communications Authority, as it does now, it ultimately will go to Evergreen Fire/Rescue.
Weege said EFR does not plan to hire additional dispatchers but will use the additional revenue to boost hours for the existing staff.
“Once there is an incident in a community and we're the go-to for it, it will make a big difference,” McCormick said. “I just see it as having amazing potential to help individuals; even if you're talking about a bus crash on Interstate 70, I (will be able to) get all the resources we need much quicker. … Having everyone on the same page — it's just like my perfect world."
A perfect world for which Evergreen will serve as the nerve center.
"Residents of Evergreen should know that their fire department is providing a high quality of service," said Fire Chief Brian Zoril of Foothills Fire and Rescue. "They should be proud that Evergreen has been selected as a regionalization site."
Weege said there will also be a 10 percent administrative fee for the participating districts.
"There will be quite a bit more we'll have to do," he said. "For example, there is a run sheet after each call that includes all of the data around the call, to the last minute, that will (need to) be printed, e-mailed and faxed to (that district), and there will have to be updated mapping as new roads and homes come in. That's why the 10 percent is added on."
Each year the costs will be refigured based on actual call volumes, Weege said.
A welcome change
The participating districts are confident the regionalized approach is the right one.
"It will be a huge benefit to the little guys," McCormick said. "Say if one has a structure fire. (Though) they only have a single dispatcher, they'll know what they have en route already, where the closest other responders are, if they're available to help or if we need to go to the next closest station so we can anticipate their needs and supply them quicker."
"The majority of the mountain departments have been in support of this transition since its inception," Zoril said. "As a group, our biggest obstacle has been building political support within the (communication authority) for the service funding."
Zoril said that even though the change will create an additional expense for his district’s residents, he’s confident the long-term funding issues will be resolved and that the benefits will be worth it.
Some dispatch areas are so small that it’s even difficult to analyze response data. Under the new system, the data could be more easily accessed and studied.
The change also is very much about safety, McCormick said. Better coordination among the mountain districts will help get the maximum amount of resources to a fire or emergency in the minimum amount of time.
"We hope that this change will allow us to be dispatched in a more efficient manner," Zoril said. "In particular, Evergreen offers dedicated fire department dispatchers. This is a service that we do not currently receive. … The objective of all the mountain fire departments is to provide the highest quality, most efficient service. We feel that this is one way that we can improve our level of service to the community."
Effects on EFR
The arrangement will create a solid revenue stream for the Evergreen district, bringing in up to $100,000 a year, Weege said.
For Evergreen, it's also an opportunity to curb some operational costs and double its call volume, McCormick said. And the department will have the extra funds to pull in additional staff during difficult conditions when highway crashes and chimney fires are the order of the day.
"I think Chief Weege has done a great job making it across the board and fair in sharing and offsetting costs," she said. “Taxpayers are the ones paying a 911 surcharge fee‚ and there is real money involved in these services."
There are growing pains with any change, McCormick said.
"Across the country, so many organizations are looking at regionalization, bringing multiple departments or equipment into one place. It's the wave of the future, but technology is expensive, and you have to be responsible to the taxpayers in being efficient and diligent in what you do and how you do it.”