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Mont. FD calls for increased funding, staffing to meet growing EMS demand

The Missoula Fire Department stated EMS calls account for 65 to 68% of total call volume


A Missoula Fire Department ambulance.

City of Missoula Fire Department/Facebook

By Zoë Buchli

MISSOULA, Mont. — Medical issues are eating up the majority of calls the Missoula Fire Department is responding to, according to a first response study presented to Missoula city councilors last week.

The city commissioned the study to evaluate how Missoula’s emergency medical system (EMS) is operating. It laid out 15 recommendations for the city to consider on ramping up its medical response methods, including dispatch modifications, increased training and bolstered communication between agencies.

Missoula Emergency Services, Inc. (more commonly known as MESI ), a private, for-profit company, is responsible for transporting people to medical facilities, but MFD usually is first on the scene for medical calls, Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes explained in a Wednesday presentation to city councilors.

“We typically beat the ambulance unit to most calls within the city just by our relative location,” Hughes said.

Medical calls account for 65 to 68% of MFD’s total call volume, the chief said. In 2023, MFD responded to over 12,000 calls, about two-thirds of which were medical.

“We have morphed from fighting just fires to providing rescue, we do hazmat response and our larger call volume component is the emergency medical service provision,” he said.

The department started responding to medical emergencies in the late 1970s, according to the chief. The city’s contract with MESI is also up in August, which would provide the chance for possible adjustments.

EMS and rescue calls steadily went up between 2018, with 5,864 such calls recorded, to about 7,208 in 2022, according to data shared by Hughes. Slipping response times across MFD were brought up again both by councilors and the chief on Wednesday.

“In the event of cardiac arrest, seconds count,” Hughes said to councilors.

MFD has vocalized concerns in recent months about the department’s need for increased funding to better support call response times and staffing levels. Last summer, city council approved a ballot resolution that would have let the city levy up to $7 million a year for fire services, including the Mobile Support Team.

It was scrapped by councilors just a few weeks later over widespread rising tax bill concerns.

The chief explained Wednesday the department’s response times have been lagging about two minutes behind the national standard of four minutes.

“Our frustrations internally grow when we can’t take care of (a call) within that time frame,” Hughes said.

Earlier this month, the Missoula Firefighters Union issued a request to the city of Missoula asking officials to reconsider running a levy to bolster fire department funding. The Missoula City Council could see a new proposal for a fire levy on Wednesday, Feb. 28 , Mayor Andrea Davis said.

Staffing is getting so low that firefighters are struggling to respond to incidents fast enough, and might not have enough time to train properly, Andrew Drobeck, incoming union president, said in the union’s news release.

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