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The bus crash that killed two people and injured more than 30 might have claimed additional lives if not for the drilling and planning practiced by emergency services.

The first crew of four Clinton volunteer firefighters arrived at the crash scene east of Missoula within five minutes of receiving the call — despite black ice on the highway that one firefighter described as a skating rink. Two survivors who had been ejected from the bus as it rolled on its side were pinned under the wreckage. They were extricated. A helicopter and ground ambulances ferried 12 seriously injured people to St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. A Clinton school bus transported at least 20 other people with less-serious injuries to Community Medical Center. Rescue crews from several nearby communities responded to the bus crash and several other wrecks Sunday morning while the Montana Highway Patrol temporarily closed the treacherous road.

On Monday, eight people from the bus, which had started its trip in Billings, remained in serious or critical condition at St. Patrick’s. All who were alive when rescuers arrived were surviving.

The bus wreck — one of the largest mass-injury crashes on Montana highways ever — once again demonstrated the importance of Montana emergency services being prepared all the time for all sorts of disasters.

Last week in this column, we noted that prevention is a tough sell in hard times. Over the past year, the federal government has reduced its funding of emergency preparedness grants for Montana hospitals. Montana cut public health funding 7.5 percent over the past year. Federal funding for research and training for emergency preparedness is at risk of being zeroed out.

Some of the most elementary emergency capabilities — including the ability to treat people during mass traumas — are experiencing cuts in every state, said Jeff Levi of Trust for America’s Health, an organization that released a report last month on preparedness gaps.

Both Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare are committed to maintaining emergency preparedness. Billings Clinic’s Hazardous Materials Response Team of 100 people can mobilize and have a portable patient decontamination tent set up outside of the hospital in about 20 minutes. St. Vincent has purchased equipment such as hazmat gear, respirators and breathing equipment, access control systems, patient tracking and portable sleds to move patients down stairs in the event of an emergency. It recently bought new flood-mitigation gear.

In Missoula, hospital spokespeople said they hadn’t dealt with such a mass of casualties since the Alberton chlorine spill in 1996. But they were ready Sunday.

“It went just the way we drill for this kind of emergency,” a Community Medical Center spokeswoman said, echoing comments from firefighters and St. Patrick’s.

Including the two lives lost in the Sunday morning bus crash, Montana saw four traffic fatalities in the first nine days of 2012. The tragic statistics are powerful reminders of how essential it is in Montana to be prepared for all hazards all the time.

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