Adam Erway is a fourth-generation firefighter and EMT working in two fire departments in Elbert County — as a part-time staff employee with Elizabeth and as a volunteer in Kiowa.
The job comes with its challenges, especially in rural Colorado where lower salaries steer many applicants away.
The problem results in rural fire agencies like those in Elbert County getting fewer volunteers and staff to fill jobs, while call volume grows. The problem is happening nationwide.
“Our issue is just not being able to compete with larger agencies in compensation,” Erway said. “Because the fire services and EMS across the country are so competitive, it’s hard to get people out in our rural departments for any length of time.”
A firefighter and paramedic for the Elizabeth Fire Department starts off with an annual salary just above $66,000. In Kiowa, it’s around $50,000 per year. A larger department like South Metro Fire can offer more than $75,000 per year for a paramedic.
“We rely on a young staff here. They come on and work with us and volunteer,” Erway said. “Then they realize they enjoy the job and want to make good money … we don’t get to keep them very long.”
Gerry Lamansky, the chief of the Kiowa Fire Protection Agency, agrees there’s a personnel issue.
“Unfortunately with today’s economic climate, people are working two or three jobs and they don’t have time to volunteer,” Lamansky said.
Funding and workforce shortages
A 2022 law required the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish the Emergency Medical Services System Sustainability Task Force to evaluate services statewide and also recommend new standards for EMS. The 20-member group, combined with lawmakers and EMS professionals, issues reports and recommendations for ground and air ambulance services to better sustain equitable access, staffing and sustainable funding.
A report published by the task force in September found many EMS agencies in Colorado are working on insufficient funding combined with low wages and a decrease of volunteerism. These issues are most pronounced in rural communities, according to the report.
The report marks the beginning of a five-phase, five-year project set out by the Ambulance Service Sustainability and State Licensing bill signed by Governor Polis last year. The plan provides a roadmap and the start of recommendations to ensure adequate funding for statewide licensing of ambulance services.
Ambulances and EMS agencies are funded in a variety of ways. The sole source of funding for fire departments in Elizabeth and Kiowa is property taxes. But when local residents begin pushing for a tax-rate decrease on the ballot, Elizabeth fire chief TJ Steck said it affects local districts the most.
Steck also added that the Elizabeth Fire Department has actively gone to the state capitol to look at other options for funding, although he said he’s not very optimistic. That’s when getting more volunteers and staff really matters, but it’s hard, especially in rural communities.
“I think in five years we’re going to be in crisis mode in volunteerism,” Steck said, adding to the potential of a diminished department if no assistance takes place.
Emergency medical services vary in how they operate from county to county. Colorado is the only state in the country without centralized oversight of ground ambulance services.
Since there is no state law that requires counties to actually provide ambulance services, it is just an option for fire districts. They are only required to provide fire protection, but most agencies provide ambulance services anyway.
The type of care that is given also varies throughout Elbert County.
Only Kiowa, Elizabeth, Rattlesnake and Agate are advanced life support, or ALS, while other agencies in the county can provide just basic life support, or BLS, which makes a big difference in the type of medical care they can give.
In some cases when there are not enough ambulances, agencies nearby either have to help cover additional square miles or lend EMS vehicles due to not having enough ambulances.
A few weeks ago, Kiowa Fire Protection Agency had three calls drop within three hours. While their only two ambulances were en route to a hospital in Parker, another ambulance was borrowed from the Elizabeth Fire Department.
Informing the public
The Kiowa and Elizabeth fire departments often put on community events in their towns to inform the public where and try to get more staff and volunteers.
“The (Kiowa) Fire District relies on us getting out there as a nonprofit and really educating the community and being involved so we can go to sleep easy at night knowing that at least they know the challenges we might face,” Erway said on the continuous effort to inform the public when votes and other decisions are made. “We all face very similar challenges.”