Converse County’s oil and gas boom is reviving the region’s economy and sending record revenues to local governments. Douglas’ housing is full, the county is the new state oil production leader and industry continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the area – all with no signs of letting up.
After a difficult economic downturn the last few years, the boom is more than welcome, but as the frequent wails of sirens suggest, the boom places an ever-increasing demand on local emergency services.
Memorial Hospital of Converse County paramedics say there’s a blatant difference between the boom and bust times. Jen Everett, who has more than 15 years of experience as a paramedic in Converse County, said she’s never seen emergency medical services this busy.
“It used to be we’d get up to 100 calls a month, if that,” she said. “Now we’re getting almost 200 calls a month.”
Monthly EMS calls have doubled since the bust of 2016. MHCC expects 2,640 calls for 2019, after 1,824 last year. 2020 will bring yet more calls, with the hospital predicting those will top 3,000.
MHCC runs three ambulances crews, two in Douglas and one in Glenrock, and they’ve all been busy. During the last bust, MHCC ambulances averaged 4.3 calls per day, with each call taking between two and three hours. In 2019, the average is already up to 7 calls per day, which means the fleet sometimes works around the clock.
And those calls are only the tip of the iceberg.
MHCC Assistant Administrator Karl Hertz said that MHCC’s emergency room has seen a dramatic spike in demand as more people show up in the ER.
“We’ve been averaging 40 (patients) per day, which 18 months ago would have looked more like 15,” he explained.
The upcoming summer months are typically the most hectic for the hospital.
“We haven’t even gotten to the busy season,” MHCC Ambulance Manager Eric Evenson said. “We’re getting hammered.”
In the past, it was rare for MHCC to see its three ambulances all out at the same time. Now, it’s common.
“Today, both primary and secondary were out,” Everett said. “Now you’re left with no ambulance coverage. So Glenrock goes and stations at Natural Bridge to cover Glenrock and Douglas in case a third call drops.”
“We’re running right to the edge of not having ambulance coverage,” Evenson said, “which is a little scary.”
Converse County’s relative remoteness poses a challenge. When an ambulance has to transfer a patient to Denver, it leaves the rotation for eight hours. Even a Casper transfer takes two hours. As calls increase, so do the number of transfers.
The county’s boom-and-bust economy makes staffing difficult for MHCC. Hiring too many people to keep up with the uptick now could lead to overstaffing when the next bust comes, so paramedics have to step up and work especially hard during the busy times.
Ambulance staff work 12-hour shifts, but because MHCC only runs three ambulances, staff are on call when they get off work, too. If two ambulances are out, and a third call comes in, being on call doesn’t entail resting at home. That means extremely long days for paramedics, week after week.
“We’re getting to where we’re doing almost those 24-hour shifts, without a break, without sleep, without down time,” Evenson said.
MHCC EMT 1 JJ Davis explained that the secondary crew wasn’t always relied on so heavily.
“It used to be on secondary you might get called out once or twice a month,” she said. “(Now) it’s pretty much a guarantee secondary crew’s going to get paged out at least once or twice a day.”
Evenson said that emergency medical services will likely need to hire more people. Right now, MHCC has 26 EMS staff (14 of whom are paramedics), between Glenrock and Douglas. That might not be enough to keep up with demand as the boom continues and, if predictions hold, intensifies this summer and into 2020.
The Cedar Springs Wind Farm project alone is expected to bring in 250 workers at peak next summer, and MHCC is asking the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Council for $208,000 in assistance for unmitigated impacts resulting from the project.
Not only has the increase in calls been a challenge, the types of calls have been different lately.
“In a town, you have typical call styles,” Evenson explained. “Here we’re seeing an increase of highway accidents because of the huge traffic especially on WYO 59, I-25.”
The spike in EMS demand isn’t all due to the boom. Converse County’s population is aging.
“We have a retiring community,” Davis said. “Our call volume has just been gradually increasing, even when the boom fell out.”
Evenson said he hopes that hiring good local candidates can help address the challenge. MHCC offers a training course, which Evenson said could become increasingly valuable at filling the gaps.
Hiring locals makes sense from another point, too. Housing shortages have made it difficult for Douglas institutions to hire people in the past. Some hires accept a job, arrive in town, then leave because they’re unable to find a place to live.
For now, MHCC EMS staff have to handle the boom as best they can until they can hire more staff.
“We’ve got to figure out how we can increase our operations with what we have currently,” Evenson said.
“If the call volume increases, we’re definitely going to have to be looking at a secondary call crew becoming a primary crew, and then coming up with another secondary crew to back it,” Evenson said. “But where’s that tipping point at? I don’t have the answer to that yet.”