Emergency No Man’s Land: How small communities like Wetmore are losing EMS service.
On the front page of my newspaper, The Wet Mountain Tribune, is a story about how the Florence Volunteer Fire Department has decided to stop sending ambulances to the Wetmore and Greenwood Village region of far eastern Custer County. In a time when many in modernity take for granted that rescue in an emergency is certain, it is important to remember that for many in the areas in, and surrounding the Wet Mountain Valley, it is not certain help will arrive.
Florence EMS pulled out because the citizens of Wetmore and Greenwood do not pay any taxes towards fire or EMS coverage. In fact, they are hardly the only communities that receive fire and medical support, but do not contribute financially to those services.
The core of Westcliffe is surrounded by a no man’s land of areas that are not part of any emergency response districts. And what to do about these non-contributing areas has been a growing concern as emergency services are straining to keep service operational.
But this is more than a financial question, it is a question of morals; shouldn’t we lend aid to those that ask? And for decades, the answer to the question is that when people call for help, someone needs to answer, even if those people do not contribute to the emergency services.
Florence just set an unsettling precedent; they have decided they have to focus on the citizens that pay them for help and cannot help those that do not contribute.
For now, it will be the Custer County and Pueblo EMS that will respond to calls, but in the case of Custer County, the EMS service is already stretched thin. Two ambulances to cover roughly 10,000 summertime residents and tourists. And the brave crews of the EMS do all this on near-minimum wage and 50 hours a week.
Pueblo EMS is at least 45 minutes from Wetmore, and almost an hour from Greenwood. Hardly a good response time for life-threatening emergencies. This predicament naturally brings up the question why the 300 to 600 hundred people that live around Wetmore do not have emergency coverage. The short answer is they do not want to pay taxes.
Over the past several decades the question if the Wetmore region should join the Florence fire and EMS tax district, or the Custer County tax district has been floated, but always shot down in unwillingness to pay taxes for emergency services. The problem with this of course, is that those citizens trust that they will still get service despite an unfunded volunteer fire department and no EMS service.
Wetmore is hardly alone in shunning contributing to the emergency tax base. The area along the Oak Creek Grade in Fremont County has refused to join the Wet Mountain Fire Protection District several times, instead creating its own fire force that requires Wet Mountain Fire to finish jobs that the Oak Creek crews are untrained and unequipped to handle, which is nearly every fire. The area also relies on Custer County EMS for all emergency calls.
Other no man’s land includes the areas around Bishops Castle that sits between the Rye Fire and Wet Mountain district. The area South of Cotopaxi and Gardner also are places where people live, but do not contribute to the emergency protection they receive.
But this does not have to be the norm. Communities can decide to join or create their own taxing district, run by the community, to provide and pay for essential emergency services. An area near the Rye and Colorado City area a few years ago decided it was time to join the Rye Fire District when a million-dollar house caught fire, and Pueblo could only send a dryland fire squad. That dryland crew cut a fire line around the house, and then watched it burn to the ground. That crew was only concerned with keeping the fire from spreading into areas that did pay its taxes for emergency services.
The only people that can truly decide the fate of these no man’s lands are the people that live there themselves. The County Commissioners, Custer EMS, and Wet Mountain can choose to keep helping when called, but like Florence, there may come a time when help will not arrive.
And all for a few dollars in local taxes.
— Jordan Hedberg