The Billings Heights will require construction of a second fire station as soon as 2021, and the Billings City Council will have to decide during the coming months what level of fire and emergency medical service it expects out of its fire department.
Emergency Services Consulting International, an Oregon-based consultant, delivered a long-range master plan to the council Tuesday.
Call volumes, said consultant Lane Wintermute, are “increasing faster than your firefighter commitment.” By National Fire Protection Association standards, Billings is two fire stations and two pumpers short of the national average for cities the size of Billings.
A new Heights fire station would not only provide faster response times in that neighborhood, but boost protection downtown, Wintermute said.
He said in the coming months, the council will have to make four determinations:
• Identify the department’s desired performance, and qualify it.
• Regularly measure actual response performance against targets.
• Address current day staffing needs as well as station maintenance, repair and replacement needs.
• Plan ahead to balance service demand, response needs and the cost of meeting those needs.
“That’s easy for me to say as a consultant,” Wintermute said, “and more difficult for you to do as a city. But until you have targets, you can’t make a scientific decision.”
He said the department could use more support and fire prevention staff.
“You have a few people doing a lot of good work,” he said, adding, “it’s much cheaper to prevent fires than fight them.”
Interim Fire Chief Bill Rash said firefighters fought about 100 fires in 2017. Nearly two-thirds of their more than 14,000 calls were for emergency medical services. The volume is expected to rise to about 19,000 calls in 2030 and more than 23,000 in 2040.
There’s an “emergent” need in the department, Rash said, to update firefighter protocols and cross-train staff.
Previous long-range master plans written for the department and for the city council, Rash said, have been “received and then dropped.”
“We now have good data,” he said, adding the question will be, “What can we afford?”
Asked why fire engines respond to the same emergency medical calls that the city’s ambulance provider, AMR, answers, Wintermute said it’s typically because firefighters, in part due to the way they’re positioned around town, can typically arrive faster and “fill in the time until the ambulance arrives.”