By the end of 2017, Missoula Fire Chief Jason Diehl anticipates his department will have logged close to 9,000 calls. He pulls up some old figures for comparison: just over 3,800 in 1996, around 5,500 in 2006, nearly 8,200 last year. He estimates that 75 percent of those calls, on average, are related not to fire, but to medical emergencies.
The stats are at Diehl’s fingertips because for the past several months he’s been pitching city officials a proposal to allow the fire department to purchase its first ambulance. On Nov. 20, his argument won out. The Missoula Public Health and Safety Committee unanimously approved the project, and Diehl promptly placed the order with Billings-based Sawtooth Emergency Vehicles last week. The ambulance costs $173,000, and the committee approved an additional $75,000 for associated expenses, all of it drawn from municipal fire impact fees. The department will also have to secure licensing from the state to transport patients. Diehl expects the ambulance to be in service by spring, though purely in a reserve capacity with existing staff.
“It’s something we’re going to definitely grow into and constantly analyze and reassess what’s working with it,” Diehl says. “But I didn’t come into it expecting we’re going to hire another eight to 10 firefighters to staff this thing 24/7.”
Diehl didn’t arrive at the proposal lightly. In fact, he says, the department’s lack of an ambulance has “always been on my mind.” Fire departments in Bozeman and Great Falls have reserve ambulances. What brought the issue to a head for Diehl was an increase in reports from staff of long waits for ambulances. A few months ago, several of his firefighters wound up transporting a patient to the hospital in the back of a fire engine.
“There was no ambulance responding, no ambulance even attached to the call,” Diehl says. “That’s kind of been the trend, and I’ve talked to the ambulance company about that. Some of it is just the way it is.”
Diehl in no way faults Missoula Emergency Services Inc., the private company that provides all ambulance services within the county. MESI covers a far greater geographic area than the fire department, he says, and has continued to meet its contractual obligations with the city in the face of ever-increasing callouts. Diehl says the expanding need is due almost entirely to growth—and to an aging population.
“We have a lot of assisted living and senior care facilities that have been built in Missoula in recent years,” he says. “Those facilities drive a lot of our call volume.”
Though the Missoula Chamber of Commerce had raised concerns that the proposal would set the city up to directly compete with a private-sector contractor, any objections were put to rest before the Nov. 20 meeting. Diehl says the ambulance will actually benefit MESI. MESI is required to assign an ambulance to all fire incidents–a service general manager Don Whalen says comes at no charge. Once operational, the department’s own ambulance could cover those duties, Diehl says, freeing MESI resources to continue responding to medical—and revenue-generating—calls.