Since 1969, the North Fork Ambulance has responded to emergency calls in all three North Fork communities and Somerset. Today it is the only ambulance service in the North Fork area. As it has since the beginning, NFA relies on memberships, donations, grants and volunteers to meet its budget needs.
And while that formula has worked well, today's operating costs are much higher than in 1969. NFA executive director Kathy Steckel and husband Rick have been EMTs with NFA for more than 20 years. Since 1969, emergency responses have grown from 60 to more than 700 calls a year, said Steckel.
The organization began its annual membership drive in September, mailing more than 5,000 membership packages. About 80 percent of the anticipated 1,800 membership forms they expect to be returned will arrive within the first six weeks of the drive, said Steckel. After that, "It doesn't taper off, it drops off," to about 8 percent in November.
Steckel is pounding the pavement to get the message of what the organization does out to the public within that critical first six weeks. A little over a year ago during a series of public meetings, citizens identified three areas of importance: the quickest response time possible, a higher level of care, and a financially stable operation.
Funding is critical to maintaining a high level of service, and keeping all three stations open is vital to maintaining the quickest response time possible, said Steckel. To shorten response time, NFA is rolling out three white Toyota 4Runner emergency response vehicles in the coming weeks. A USDA Community Facilities grant and state EMS provider grant funded 75 percent of the cost of the vehicles. They aren't for transporting patients, but do allow for higher-trained EMS providers to arrive at the scene more quickly.
"It's an awesome step for us to be able to do that," said Steckel.
A higher level of care means going beyond providing basic life support. Than requires experience and education, said Steckel. One year ago they had one Paramedic and one EMT-Intermediate. Thanks to scholarships, grants and private donations, they now have five EMT-Is and plan to add two more before the end of this year.
Regarding financial stability, at this time last year, said Steckel, the NFA faced a projected $190,000 budget deficit. They were able to make up all but $40,000 of that deficit by the end of 2015, said Steckel. "We took that as progress."
The organization is actively pursuing grants and is working to tighten their budget. Efforts include researching rebuilding rather than replacing ambulances, and looking closely at all areas of operation to see where costs can be cut without affecting services.
Last year they added a line on the membership form for members to add an additional donation when joining or renewing membership. In 2014, said Steckel, NFA received an additional $3,700 in donations; last year they received more than $40,000, with more than half coming in with memberships.
The community really appreciates what we're doing and they're really stepping up with those additional donations," said Steckel. "We really appreciate that."
Since its inception the organization has relied heavily on volunteers. In addition to ambulance crews, they created a network of more than 70 volunteers to help with non-emergency duties, from professional services like grant-writing, financial planning and community outreach, to stuffing envelopes and baking cookies.
About 35 percent, or roughly 1,800 of the 5,000 mailings sends out will result in a membership. "I would really like to see that figure rise to 50 percent or higher," said Steckel. "It's a matter of educating the public as to how we operate and why. Membership is a great value, and keeps us here."
Annual memberships start at $40. Beginning last year, if a member is insured, NFA bills the insurance company. Membership covers all insurance deductibles and out of pocket expenses. Non-insured members pay 60 percent of their bill. After restructuring membership benefits, service fee revenues almost doubled, said Steckel.
Starting this year, business owners, employees and customers are covered if emergency occurs at the business during regular operating hours. They also brought back the $10 membership discount for employees of business members.
NFA currently operates on between $500,000-$600,000 annually. The board of directors predicts another budget deficit this year, said Steckel. She has set a goal of balancing the budget by the end of the year. Fortunately, she said, through the conservative stewardship of the past boards, the organization has put money in reserve to make it through times like this.
"NFA is not funded through a special taxing district because what we've done the last 47 years has worked," said Steckel. Until the last two years they operated in the black. The organization serves a 1,550-square mile area, so keeping all three stations open serves the needs of rural communities best. An estimate to run all three stations with a paid staff would cost more than a million dollars annually in wages alone, said Steckel.
"Membership in North Fork Ambulance is essential in keeping the agency responding from three stations," said Steckel. In the future it may be necessary to close the Crawford and Paonia stations and serve the entire valley from Hotchkiss.
The board is also researching a possible mill levy and the level of service it would support. One revenue stream is the EMS Provider grant, which is funded exclusively from the $2 fee tacked onto state license plate renewals. Other ways to support NFA include designating the them as the beneficiary through the City Market/Kroger value cards Community Rewards program. It does not affect fuel points, said Steckel. Through Amazon Smile, a half a percent of each purchase through Amazon can be designated to NFA.
"We wouldn't exist without community support," said Steckel. "I think the people who know what we're doing and why we do it really want to keep us here."
New and renewing members can enroll, make donations and learn more at www.northforkambulance.com.