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NFAA eyes options ahead of membership drive

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With its annual membership drive just around the corner, the North Fork Ambulance Association is asking a simple question: "What if you called the ambulance and nobody came?"

The NFAA, the only ambulance service operating in the North Fork area, is considering all of its options after estimating a 2015 budget deficit of almost $200,000.

Executive director Kathy Steckel gave a presentation at last week's Crawford Town Council work session. The presentations covered the history and current operations of the association, the difficulties it faces, and the options under consideration if deficits continue.

In 2013 and 2014, the association broke even, said Steckel. This year's deficit is due largely to cash purchases of new equipment, including three Lucas 2 chest compression systems. The board of directors determined the devices were an immediate life-saving necessity and opted to purchase them outright, rather than take valuable time to investigate grants and other funding options.

NFAA currently operates almost exclusively with volunteers. It was founded in 1969, with a 1964 Oldsmobile Hearse for transporting patients and a gurney, courtesy of local Rotarians. It covers roughly 1,500 square miles in Delta, Gunnison and Montrose counties and serves about 5,600 residents, and has stations in Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.

In the early 1970s, said Steckel, the organization had 25 volunteer EMTs and averaged 60 calls per year. Gas was about 36 cents a gallon. Today, the population has doubled, as has the number of drivers, but calls have increased to 730/year, or about 12 times. Gas currently averages just over $2.80/gallon.

That translates to a lack of funding and a lack of staffing -- the two biggest challenges faced today. NFAA is not in a special tax district and is solely funded by membership dues, grants, donations and service fees.

Today, the public can expect a response time of between 1 and 30 minutes, with an average time of 12-15 minutes, depending on the location and the number of calls already underway. The first call has the quickest response time, said Steckel, but that time increases as more calls come in. One morning, said Steckel, they had four ambulances on calls at once.

The association logs 52,560 hours per year -- that's three stations with two crew members each, 24/7/365. Labor costs currently average $2.37/hour, or $125,000 a year. If paid staff replaced volunteers and the full value of their labor, including taxes and benefits, estimated at $22/hour, were paid, that cost would rise to $1,155,320.

NFAA recovers between 8 and 42 percent of the cost of its calls, which average between $1,000 and $1,200 per call. It currently has 1,800 members, representing about one-third of the population of the service area. Half of those members are senior citizens. Membership pays for 100 percent of out-of-pocket costs for ambulance service for all permanent household residents, and business memberships cover costs to patrons who become ill or injured during normal business hours.

In order to continue operating, the association is considering four options: 1) discontinue service entirely; 2) ask voters to approve a special tax district (with a tax levy of 18.59 mills, or $295/year for a residential property valued at $200,000), which can take up to three years to pass, and replace volunteers with paid staff; 3) combine services with Delta County Ambulance District and ask voters to approve a special tax district (with a tax levy of 8.14 mills, or $130 per $200,000 value); or 4) continue to staff three stations with basic life support and a volunteer advanced life support team, continue to research additional revenue streams, and possibly use up cash reserves.

NFAA is also seeking funding for additional training of volunteers in order to provide better first-response care. To do all of this, the association needs more members, more volunteers and more donations.

Steckel left the meeting with a check for $200, courtesy of the American Legion, in hand. "We voted on it at the last meeting, said trustee and Legion member Larry Kontour, also a former EMT.

A jerky fundraising drive is underway. Packages of nitrate- and nitrite-free, all-natural jerky made with elk meet from High Wire Ranch and can be purchased at the following locations. Paonia: Bank of Colorado, First State Bank of Colorado, Lizzies Market, High Country Printing, The Diner. Crawford: First State Bank of Colorado, the Hitching Post. Hotchkiss: First State Bank, Weekender Sports, CarQuest.

Steckel will continue to give public presentations throughout the membership drive, which runs through October. The business membership drive officially begins Sept. 2. Organizations or groups wanting to schedule a presentation can call 234-6169 or email ksteckel@northforkambulance.com.

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