Missoula fire chief wins OK to buy ambulance to avoid gaps in care

The Missoula City Council on Monday approved the purchase of a $173,000 ambulance for the Missoula Fire Department.

After a few patients were transported to the hospital recently aboard fire trucks, Missoula Fire Chief Jason Diehl asked for and received permission Monday night to purchase an ambulance.

The gaps in coverage by the private Missoula Emergency Services ambulances are rare, but nonetheless must be filled, Diehl told the Missoula City Council.

The new city ambulance won’t compete with MES, he said, but will be an “insurance policy” against gaps in service caused by Missoula’s growth and the ever-higher volume of emergency medical calls.

“When our firefighters are on scene for 20, 30, 40 minutes before an ambulance can respond to transport patients to the hospital, we need a backup,” Diehl said. “Or when, occasionally, there is no ambulance available at all.”

That scenario has played out a few times recently, the fire chief said, and firefighters had no choice but to load the patient onto their fire truck for transport to the hospital.

City Councilman Bryan von Lossberg emphasized that the city is not unhappy with the service provided by Missoula Emergency Services.

The ambulance company is meeting the terms of its contract by arriving on the scene of a medical call within 9 minutes or less 90 percent of the time.

“Two things can be true,” von Lossberg said. “Missoula Emergency Services can meet the terms of its contract and we can still have a gap in care that’s essential to the community.”

MES cannot staff its ambulances 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the level needed to meet every city call – more than 9,000 calls per year, Diehl explained.

And MES provides service for a number of outlying rural areas, which takes its ambulances out of the city on occasion.

The $173,000 ambulance approved Monday will provide certainty for those gaps, as well as another transport vehicle during large events or disaster situations, according to Diehl.

“It will allow us to be proactive,” he said. “If we anticipate a large volume of calls because of an event, we can utilize the department’s ambulance.”

It will be valuable as well in mass casualty – disaster – situations, the chief said. “Right now, we have no capability to transport patients.”

On normal calls, the routine will remain the same: Fire Department EMTs will initiate care when they arrive at the scene with firefighters, then will pass the patient onto Missoula Emergency Services EMTs for transport to the hospital.

Diehl said he doesn’t believe MES will see any reduced volume of calls. But it’s not reasonable, he said, to ask the private company to buy more ambulances to cover every possible city medical call.

“I wouldn’t consider that good business,” he said.

Earlier this year, the proposed purchase drew fire from the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, which worried about the city competing with a private ambulance company.

Those fears were not voiced at Monday’s City Council meeting or during public comment prior to the vote. The council’s approval was unanimous.