EDWARDS — Chris Montera’s team at Eagle County Paramedic Services began planning for COVID-19 response in early February, well before the county emerged as an epicenter for the virus.
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As they sketched out worst-case scenarios, the first responders and emergency medical technicians kept returning to one question: “What if we get sick?”
“So we started thinking about ways to not just protect ourselves, but how can we build a surge capacity and backfill in case providers get sick,” said Montera, the county’s chief executive of emergency services.
Then, on March 14, hundreds of ski patrollers at Vail and Beaver Creek suddenly lost their jobs when the resorts closed by Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order. Montera developed a quick training program and recruited 20 patrollers to trade in their skis for ambulances. The patrollers — whose jobs require training in emergency medical care — allow the county to deploy as many as six reserve ambulances and help back-up staff should any of the department’s 65 health care providers fall ill.
Emily Selonick joined the ambulance team last month. A Vail ski patroller for eight years, she said the move to emergency care was “a natural fit.”
“It was a great opportunity, since the season did end so abruptly, to stay in that realm and zone of patient care,” she said.
Selonick has worked closely with emergency medical technicians at the ambulance district for many years. Those EMTs often transport patients first treated by patrollers at the county’s two ski areas. After a brief training and a test-drive of an ambulance, she is working alongside those technicians.
The role of the new patrollers is largely to serve in ambulances. So instead of taking the EMTs out of service to drive an ambulance, those providers can stay with patients while patrollers are behind the wheel.
“Hopefully they won’t need us, but if they do, it’s a great opportunity for us to help out,” Selonick said.
Chris Johnson has been a ski patroller for 20 years, serving the past decade at Beaver Creek. After the resort closed last month, he signed up to help the county’s paramedics. He had to provide documentation that his vaccinations were up to date, then he took an online training course and spent a shift with the paramedics driving ambulances.
“The on-boarding process was pretty smooth, considering they are trying to get 20 new people hired when normally they hire one or two,” the Edwards resident said.
Montera has not activated the new hires yet. In fact, without thousands of skiers on Vail and Beaver Creek and residents staying mellow, there have not been a lot of calls for ambulances or emergency care. But Montera expects to use the patrollers. So far he has had nine members of his team fall ill, but all tested negative for COVID-19.
“If we get higher numbers of personnel falling sick, we will plug them in,” he said.
Other paramedic services in resort communities have reached out to Montera about the process for recruiting idled patrollers. The National Ski Patrol, based in Lakewood, is posting several national jobs for ski patrollers whose emergency medical skills can help in the pandemic. (Those positions, offered by telemedicine and health services provider Medcor Inc., include telephone and onsite screeners for COVID-19.)
“They are just such a good fit. Paramedics in general really have this idea that no day is ever the same, and I think ski patrollers really have that same sense,” Montera said. “They can tackle whatever the world throws at them and they can do it with a high degree of intellect and a high degree of problem solving. And they are really compassionate and really care about their patients.”