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Mich. officials make progress on city-operated ambulance service

Officials in Traverse City have begun working on recruitment, apparatus and transitioning from Mobile Medical Response

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Photo/Traverse City Fire Department

By Bill O’Brien
The Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — In the days and evenings leading up to the Nov. 7 election, Traverse City firefighters and paramedics canvassed the neighborhoods in an effort to provide a voter-supported, city-operated ambulance service.

Now the real work begins.

It will take 18 to 24 months to build out the personnel, equipment and facilities needed, city officials said, as they lay the groundwork of a new emergency services system funded by a property tax levy of up to 1 mill approved by more than 65 percent of voters.

“There’s a lot of logistics to work through on this,” interim City Manager Nate Geinzer said. “We’re not going to throw a switch and have ambulance service. It’s going to take some time.”

Fortunately, the city won’t be starting from scratch. City Fire Chief Jim Tuller said the department investigated the potential of city ambulance service on a couple of other occasions in recent years, and can draw on some of that data and experience going forward.

Tuller has also gathered information from other Michigan cities that run ambulance squads, including Adrian and Sterling Heights, to help the city form its own ambulance squad.

Shortly after the city commission this summer agreed to put the ambulance millage proposal before voters, Tuller appointed a committee that included himself and the department’s four captains to develop a plan to implement the service.

The committee broke down the work into four separate areas: needed personnel, equipment and supplies; acquiring two new ambulances; creating facilities to house the additional personnel, and how to transition from the current ambulance service provided by Mobile Medical Response.

Tuller said the group is working with the city’s Human Resources department on hiring three new Emergency Medical Technicians in the next four months to get the department up to current staffing needs, and then hire another 10 EMTs needed to create the full-time service. Tuller knows the challenges faced by employers across the region to find qualified employees in a tight labor market.

“We’re somewhat confident that there are personnel in our area and statewide who want to work in EMS,” he said. " Traverse City is still a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Supply-chain issues also will complicate the transition, as it will take at least 18 months to acquire the two new ambulances needed for the service. That’s not as long as the three-year wait the city will have to get its new fire department ladder truck that’s on order, but Tuller said longer waiting times on equipment are the new reality faced by first responders.

“It’s really a challenge to do any kind of short-term planning,” Tuller said. “You really have to anticipate and be ready.”

Facilities to house the new department personnel also must be worked out. The department is investigating internal expansion work at both city fire stations to provide more space for staff. The city also may have space available in the county’s Commission on Aging office next to the West Front Street Fire Station — which once housed the city Police Department — if the county follows through on its facilities plan to relocate the COA office.

“We’re exploring those options as well,” Tuller said.

One fact not lost on the city’s first responders is the level of trust — and investment — that city voters are making in the department. Jacob Steichen, president of the Traverse City Firefighters Local 646 that worked to support the proposal, said several city residents talked to department members about their higher tax burden as the staff visited with neighbors.

The up to 1-mill ambulance tax will be added to several extra-voted millage levies — senior services, animal control, recreation, school debt and public transportation, among others — that cost city property owners hundreds of dollars a year on top of the standard city, county and school operating levies.

But Tuller is confident that the ambulance levy of up to 1 mill that will go on the 2024 tax bills — raising close to $1.2 million a year — will be more than enough to cover the cost of the new ambulance service. Those funds will be supplemented by billings for ambulance runs which are projected to total about $800,000 per year. Non-city residents will be billed for ambulance service, while transport costs for city residents will be billed to their insurance carriers, and waived by the city if not covered by insurance.

Steichen said approval of the ambulance millage created a morale boost across the department, and that the fire and rescue staff appreciates the voters’ trust and support moving forward.

“We’ve never had a certain long-term (plan) that said, ‘This is what the department is going to look like for a long time,’ ” Steichen said. “We’re going to grab ahold of this thing and do it appropriately and responsibly.”

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