Emergency calls on the rise

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Donna Gonzalez of Clovis takes a call at the Clovis Police Department dispatch center. Gonzalez has 17 years of dispatch experience.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

The fire department is responding to a significant increase in calls for help lately.

The majority are ambulance calls and there doesn’t appear to be a ready answer as to why.

While it’s typical to see about a three percent annual increase in calls, so far this year the increase has been more like 10 percent, Chief Ray Westerman said.

At an average of about 19 calls per day — almost two more per day than last year — crews are busy but sustaining, Westerman said.

However if the trend holds long-term, it will start to wear on resources, he said.

“It really hasn’t affected us a whole lot at this point, other than we’re just a little bit busier,” he said.

“(The typical) three percent (increase) is not much, (but) 10 percent becomes more difficult over an extended period of time.”

Westerman said the Clovis Fire Department has 72 uniformed personnel with an average of 18 personnel working per shift. They are spit between five fire stations.

Ambulance calls can range from simple medical issues treated on scene, to more complex issues requiring transport to the emergency room at Plains Regional Medical Center or a higher-level trauma center elsewhere.

Out-of-town transfers — transfers that involve driving patients from PRMC to Lubbock or Amarillo hospitals — is another growing area for the department.

And it is an element of service that does tend to wear on resources a little more, Westerman said.

“We are beginning to feel it a little bit, especially the increase in out-of-town transfers, because they take a little bit more time to accomplish,” he said.

But the fire department seems to be alone in the issue, with police and hospital data tracking roughly in-line with normal patterns.

The hospital has not seen a significant uptick in emergency room visits, said Elizabeth Brophy, spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare, parent company for PRMC.

Nor have any services changed at PRMC that would lead to more out-of-town transfers, she said, explaining physicians send patients to other hospitals when their needs exceed what PRMC can do for them.

But although numbers are not outside the expected levels, Brophy said higher emergency room usage is a growing trend nationwide, describing it as a complex issue.

“Emergency services are at capacity across the nation and that was before the economy took a turn,” she said.

“A lot of times the ER is accessed as a primary care for people that don’t have insurance, (or has increases) based in the time of year, like during flu season.”

The Clovis Police Department, whose dispatchers handle calls for the fire department and after-hours calls for the sheriff’s office, has also seen and increase in the first seven months of the year.

But, “It’s marginal so it’s not anything we didn’t expect,” Capt. Patrick Whitney said.

And contrary to an increase in police calls, overall, crimes tracked for annual data are actually down one percent for the first half of the year.

Whitney said the department is planning for growth and preparing for increased needs. But at this point, “the increases are very slight where they are,” he said.

And with police staffing levels above what they were last year, the department is actually feeling fairly good right now, Whitney said.

Westerman said he’s not entirely sure why the numbers have jumped. But he also said he won’t consider it a true trend until it has gone on for a longer period of time.

Westerman said if the increase continues, especially with forecasted growth for the area from expansion at Cannon AFB, the need for additional resources will have to be evaluated and planned for.

But for now, Westerman said he’s just keeping an eye on the numbers.