Mont. city seeks to combine fire, ambulance services

The two departments may merge after the city's ambulance director stepped down, but the volunteer fire chief is against the proposal


By Mike Ferguson
Billings Gazette

LAUREL, Mont. — What Laurel's top city executive sees as an opportunity to provide better emergency services to residents might instead prove to be a bone of contention with a key department head.

When Ambulance Director Jan Faught stepped down last month after 19 years of service, Heidi Jensen, Laurel's chief administrative officer, decided residents would be better served combining ambulance and volunteer fire services and placing the operation under a single director.

In Laurel-sized cities, "that's generally how fire and ambulance works -- as combined departments," she said. The ambulance service "needs a full-time director who is there during normal business hours." Combining the departments and placing them under common leadership "will open up a lot of doors and offer opportunities for cross-training, avenues that haven't been explored before," Jensen said.

The problem is that Laurel Volunteer Fire Chief Brent Peters doesn't quite see it that way.

"The chief administrative officer and I don't see eye to eye on this," Peters said. "We (including Jensen, City Attorney Sam Painter and Mayor Mark Mace) are still in discussion over the best course to arrange this."

Peters said he won't -- and can't -- be a candidate for the new position since he works full-time during the day at the ExxonMobil Refinery in Billings. Still, he said, he puts in 30-60 hours each week as chief of a 43-member volunteer force that's well-regarded not only for fire protection but for special events firefighters put on each year, including Laurel's Fourth of July fireworks show.

"I feel even a full-time paid person wouldn't put in that many hours," Peters said.

Asked whether he'd resign if someone new is hired and Peters would have to report to that person, the five-year chief said, "It depends on how everything plays out."

"I love leading the fire department, and I love this community," he said. "It is our mission to better and protect the community. We have a great bunch of people (volunteer firefighters) who believe in what they're doing."

Jensen, who's been in her position for four years, called Peters "very respected" and said the work he's put in during his five years as chief "aren't quantifiable." But Montana law requires that when a community reaches 7,500 residents, emergency response departments must be at least partially paid, Jensen said, "and by 2020, we anticipate being above that."

Laurel's estimated population in 2013 was 7,036, according to the United States Census Bureau.

"I certainly hope he will stay on with everything he has done," Jensen said of Peters.

She said volunteer ambulance personnel "have done an outstanding job" since Faught's resignation. "The calls are being answered, and they're donating a lot of time or for a pretty low stipend or call-out pay. We are confident that will continue."

"This is an exciting opportunity, and we see this as an opportunity, 100 percent," Jensen said. "This is something that should have happened a long time ago. We don't want to go backward. The public demands this step in the right direction, and the public deserves it."

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©2015 Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

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