For its size and emergency service demands, Billings ought to have another fire station and pumper truck, according to a Billings Fire Department master plan presented to the City Council Tuesday night.
The BFD runs lean compared with other fire departments in the nation and in the region, according to Emergency Services Consulting International, the Oregon-based firm that spent most of a year studying the city’s fire service. The result is an information-packed 160-page report that provides the department, city leaders and the rest of us citizens recommendations for upgrading and maintaining our city fire and EMS service.
Adding a second Heights fire station, as the master plan recommends, would require adding 24 firefighters.
Ideas for construction of new stations certainly deserve scrutiny. Even more important are staffing decisions. Personnel is the most critical and most costly component of a professional fire department.
Our city leaders will have to make decisions about staffing up one or more new stations. They also must ensure that present staffing is being deployed to best advantage. The report suggests that the city also should consider adding additional administration, support and training personnel.
“An effective administration and support services system is critical to the success of a fire agency,” the plan says, noting that BFD has fewer administrators and support staffers than most departments its size. The fire chief also supervises the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center, which is unusual for an operation with 31.5 dispatchers, three supervisors and a manager.
With a minimum of 22 fire suppression employees on duty 24/7, Billings has fewer responders per 1,000 population than other fire departments in the region and considerably fewer than the national average.
One way that Billings could increase its staffing levels would be for firefighters to work more hours. Such a change would require negotiation with the firefighters’ union and mutual agreement. The firefighters’ work contract is up for negotiation this summer. If each firefighter was paid to work one more shift per month, the department would gain the equivalent hours of 11 new full-time firefighters, the report says. It would be more cost-efficient for the city than hiring additional firefighters because of benefit expenses.
Most of BFD’s calls are for emergency medical service and firefighters often arrive before an ambulance does. All Billings fire crews have EMT training and some include a paramedic. The study notes that having a firefighter paramedic on every call would enhance patient care because advanced life support could be started faster. In cases with multiple victims, having both a firefighter paramedic and an ambulance paramedic on scene would ensure better care.
“By adding at least one paramedic to the on-scene personnel, BFD would be increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome,” the report said.
Those of us who call Billings home want to know that our professional firefighters will arrive quickly when we need emergency help. We also know that there will be a limit to how much service the city provides through taxation and annual budgets.
In coming months, the City Council will be deciding what’s good enough for response times, if and when to add personnel, reorganize present staff and whether another fire station is needed. As the council sets priorities, let your representatives know your concerns.