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Clarification Sought on Ambulance Responses

DENVER -- Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart asked city health officials Friday to clarify ambulance response times, amid concerns that they are longer than previously reported.

Linkhart, who heads the council's safety committee, submitted 10 questions about ambulance response rates to Denver Health and the city auditor. Among Linkhart's other queries was how Denver's response rate compares with those in other cities, and the condition of Denver's 31 ambulances.

Linkhart and City Council President Michael Hancock said they aren't presuming that response times are being calculated incorrectly.

"We're just asking the question," Linkhart said.

Under a contract with the city, a Denver Health ambulance must reach a patient within 8 minutes and 59 seconds. That standard must be met 85 percent of the time. But it isn't clear when the clock begins ticking on the 8 minutes and 59 seconds.

Bob Petre, the president of International Association of Fire Fighters, local 3634, said Denver Health excludes several minutes between the time the 911 phone rings and an ambulance rolls toward the incident.

In some cases, no Denver ambulances are available, and dispatchers must call for a vehicle from a surrounding jurisdiction or a private company, Petre said.

Petre's IAFF local represents paramedics.

Bobbi Barrow, a spokeswoman for Denver Health, agreed that the agency starts the clock when the ambulance rolls. The Denver Fire Department calculates response time in the same way, Barrow said.

But, Barrow said, response time is below 8 minutes, 59 seconds. The average is about 61/2 minutes, Barrow said.

That's because ambulances are positioned around the city waiting for calls from dispatch.

Firefighters also respond to medical emergencies and are on the scene in four minutes, Barrow said. They deliver CPR, insert a breathing tube or apply a defibrillator.

Response times are longer if calculated from the time a 911 operator fields the call, Barrow said. For example, in the first quarter of 2007, a period for which statistics were available Friday, the average response time was 10 minutes and 48 seconds from the time the 911 call arrived, Barrow said.

Some of the additional time is used by the 911 operator to determine the nature of the emergency, she said.

Barrow said she didn't know how much time is added to the response when outside agencies are called.

Experts said the preferable calculation for evaluating whether ambulances are arriving quickly enough begins when the 911 call is received.

Marshall Gardner, the manager of EMS and disaster preparation for the American College of Emergency Physicians, a professional group, said brain tissue begins to die from lack of oxygen about two minutes after cardiac arrest.

"Every minute is critical," Gardner said.

Dr. Richard Alcorta, who heads emergency services for Maryland, said the majority of cities rate their effectiveness based on how long it takes for care to arrive after the 911 call. Alcorta is a fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

Barrow and Petre agreed that the city could reduce the number of calls for assistance to other agencies if more staff were available.

Only 20 of the 31 ambulances are staffed at a given time. That has been the case for many years, Barrow said.

morsonb@RockyMountainNews.comor 303 954-5209

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