SIDE STREETS: Desire to help, heal drives firefighter/pastor

April 17, 2013
photo - Jeff Martin, a 20-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Fire Department and ten-year volunteer pastor at Open Bible Baptist Church prepares to baptize five people during the beginning of service Sunday, April 14, 2013. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO, THE GAZETTE
Jeff Martin, a 20-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Fire Department and ten-year volunteer pastor at Open Bible Baptist Church prepares to baptize five people during the beginning of service Sunday, April 14, 2013. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette Photo by MICHAEL CIAGLO, THE GAZETTE 

Jeff Martin is devoting his life to helping people heal.

Seven days a week.

Five days a week, he’s a Colorado Springs firefighter and emergency medical technician who is leading the Fire Department’s effort to reduce the number of calls to 9-1-1 for non-acute medical care.

On Sundays, all week really, he’s tending to the spiritual health of folks at Open Bible Baptist Church, where he is the pastor.

But he doesn’t check his medical care efforts at the door of his church. In fact, he has opened the doors of Open Bible to the city’s poor and uninsured by offering a medical clinic two days a week. And not far away is a pharmacy he launched for the poor and uninsured.

“I love helping people,” Martin said Tuesday as he showed me around his church. “It’s why I became a firefighter when I was 18. And an EMT. Helping people is part of my DNA.”

No doubt. In fact, his life of service and healing mirrors his father, Jefferson Martin Sr., in many ways.

Jefferson Martin Sr. spent 27 years in the Army, in the artillery, retiring from Fort Carson as a command sergeant major. He served in Korea and Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange and contracted lung cancer, which Martin said ultimately led to his death in 2000.

After his retirement from the Army, the elder Martin had a profound spiritual awakening, his son said. It led him to become an ordained minister and eventually founded the Open Bible church in 1991.

“My dad was a tough guy,” Martin told me. “But I saw how God softened his heart. If God could change my dad, he could change anyone.”

And Martin had a similar awakening that led him to follow his father’s footsteps in the ministry and even as pastor at Open Bible in 2003.

But Martin didn’t quit his day job when he took on the pulpit.

It was something he prayed about. In October 2011, the feeling grew strong that he needed to quit and devote all his energies to his church, its clinic and pharmacy and other outreach efforts like its food bank. Again he prayed about it.

“Then a few months later, in February, the fire chief started talking about community health initiatives in the context of the fire department mission,” Martin said. “In May, they told me they wanted to pull me off the truck and have me lead this initiative.

“It felt like an answer to my prayers.”

So after 20 years riding trucks and responding to emergencies, Martin became the point man in the department’s effort to reduce the number of emergency calls by folks needing non-life-threatening medical attention.

“How many times over the years we’ve driven with our lights flashing and sirens, speeding up one-way streets, going through red lights, fighting to get to a guy standing at a pay phone who says ‘Take me to a hospital. I need my meds.’ ” Martin said.

“This has been a problem for a long time. The predominant number of calls we go on aren’t for fires. They are medical calls.”

Many would be much better handled by a primary care physician or community health center rather than riding in an ambulance to an emergency room.

“In 10 years, we’ve seen an 80 percent increase in these calls,” Martin said. “These people have no insurance or access to medical care. So they call 9-1-1.”

Research found one patient who called 9-1-1 more than 150 times in a single year.

It’s a huge problem for the fire department as well as Memorial and Penrose hospitals. One social services expert estimates each such trip to the ER costs about $3,000. So they are collaborating on a pilot project to identify the frequent fliers and try to intercept them before they call again. The goal is to get them into structured care at area low-income clinics for care of their high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

Martin leads the effort. His team identifies 100 patients each month to receive visits for counseling and care.

“People calling 9-1-1 need help,” he said. “But that’s not the appropriate avenue to get it. We need to find the right avenue for them.”

And the department believes they have the perfect person in Martin to solve the problem.

“When we put this program together, the first person who came to mind to lead it was Jeff Martin,” said Tommy Smith, deputy fire chief. “He’s done a tremendous job. He knows the ins and outs of community health. He knows the community. He is innovative and has creative ideas.”

Smith knows Martin has struggled with the idea of leaving to concentrate on his church.

“We’re so glad he stayed and now he gets to continue working in an area he’s passionate about,” Smith said, adding that Martin has done more than he ever envisioned with the pilot program. “It’s a case where you let him run with your idea and it ends up much better than you had in mind.”

Martin says he’s the lucky one.

“This is my passion in life,” he said. “I enjoy helping people.

“I’m blessed to be able to walk with people in their lives and help them.”

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