GFFR to cease responding to minor medical calls; proposing fees for false alarms, noncompliance with safety inspections
Beginning July 1, Great Falls Fire Rescue will no longer respond to minor medical calls due to limited resources and an increasing call volume.
“Something had to give,” GFFR Chief Jeremy Jones told City Commissioners during their June 15 work session.
Those types of calls include minor injuries like broken fingers and toes, minor cuts with controlled bleeding, fever/cough, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Those types of calls will still be handled by the dispatch center, but will be routed to the private ambulance service instead of GFFR.
Jones said that decision has been made to ensure GFFR personnel and equipment are available for major medical calls including unconscious or not breathing, signs of shock, respiratory distress, chest pain, decreased level of consciousness, gunshot wounds, stabbings and penetrating injuries, as well as fires and hazardous materials calls.
Eliminating GFFR’s response to those minor medical calls is expected to reduce their call volume by about 28 percent based on 2020 numbers, Jones said.
He told commissioners that the reduction would take then down to 2009 numbers, when GFFR was asking for 16 additional firefighters.
The department currently has 60 firefighters. It had 69 in 1970 when the four fire stations were built, Jones said.
The city has grown in geographic size from 14 square miles in 1970 to 23 square miles in 2020.
Jones said that the standard response time and goal is four minutes.
A number of areas of the city, including Talus Apartments, Eagles Crossing and other dense areas fall well outside that four minute response time, which can result in greater fire damage or, worst case scenario, death, he said.
“We are at a breaking point,” Jones said, where GFFR can no longer support the city’s expansion and provide appropriate public safety services.
Much of the call volume is in the downtown areas but with the voids under many of the downtown buildings, there’s a real danger to lose an entire city block if GFFR can’t respond in time, Jones said.
If CPR isn’t started within four minutes for a major medical call, brain death starts, Jones said and chances of survival go down 58 percent for every 30 seconds after that.
Flashover can occur within four to five minutes and many modern construction materials contribute to rapid fire destruction, he said.
“We just don’t have the time to intervene,” Jones told commissioners.
For fires within the community, Jones pointed to an example of an apartment complex with a response of under 4 minutes that had fire spread and damage, but the building was salvagable.
In the case of one residential fire, there was an eight minute response, resulting in structure damage. The house might be rebuildable, Jones said, but it would be questionable to the insurance company.
Jones showed an example of a 16 minute response time, which is complete destruction and “this is a really bad day for us. By the way, that’s where we’re at going out to Talus.”
In 1970, he said, there were 825 calls for service. In 2020, there 8,575 calls.
Jones said that in 1989, there were 1,433 calls for service and that was the year the department was cut from 68 firefighters to 60.
In 1994, GFFR began responding to all medical calls and in 2000, the department began offering Advanced Life Support response.
In 2001, the department sent its first class through paramedic training thanks to a private financial contribution.
In 2006, an independent evaluation looked at the pre-hospital EMS system that led to the creation of the city’s code governing that system.
In 2009, the city was selected for a staffing grant but couldn’t take it because the public safety levy failed.
Jones told commissioners that the department has made operational changes in an effort to address the call volume and longer response times. Those changes have included creating a comprehensive pre-hospital system, changing how they respond to fire alarms and send battalion chiefs on cardiac calls to have an extra set of hands.
The city is working with Alluvion Health and other entities on developing a more robust mental heath/crisis intervention response program.
Jones said GFFR has been working for years to create a fifth unit, a two-person rig to respond to smaller calls and keep the engine companies available for major calls, but staffing levels haven’t allowed that to work yet.
He said that he will not be asking for firefighters in this year’s budget since adding just one firefighter wouldn’t address their needs and if there’s funding for a single full time employee, other departments could make better use of that.
To create that fifth unit to take smaller calls, the department would need to add eight more firefighters to staff it on all shifts. To add another engine company would mean adding 12 more firefighters, Jones said. Both of those options would mean a substantial financial investment from the city. The fire department budget is typically around $10 million annually over the last few years.
The department has been successful in recent years in grants and has funded about $5 million worth of apparatus and equipment purchases through those grants.
GFFR officials are also recommending changes related to safety inspections, permits and false alarms to ensure better code compliance and help the department generate revenue comparable to the time and resources being put into those programs.
Fire Marshal Mike McIntosh said in the case of first time and annual safety inspections, most business owners want to be compliant and work with GFFR if there are any deficiencies.
Some have continued deficiencies and choose not to comply and some end up being referred to the city legal department for action, McIntosh said.
McIntosh said they’ve reviewed how other jurisdictions handle the issue and most have a tiered fee structure.
The fees for the initial safety inspection and renewals are based on square footage of the building.
McIntosh and GFFR are proposing a new fee structure for those that require additional inspections to correct deficiencies. The initial inspection and first reinspection are covered by the regular SIC fee. For a second reinspection, they’re proposing a flat $200 fee and for the third reinspection, a $300 fee. If the issue is still not corrected by that point, the matter would be referred to the city attorney’s office.
The department is also asking commissioners to consider enacting an ordinance regarding false alarms on fire alarm systems since they respond to a high number of those calls, some of which from alarm systems that aren’t properly maintained.
They’re proposing a $200 fee on a property owner or responsible person for a third subsequent activation of an fire alarm system that is a false alarm, but would give GFFR discretion to work with property owners who are working to address known problems with their systems or in the case of power surges versus those who simply won’t address known issues with their systems that lead to numerous false alarm calls.
McIntosh said that in 2020, GFFR responded to 115 false alarms for structure fires. That type of call has a standard response of a battalion chief and two engines with the potential for a battalion chief with three engines, running lights and sirens.
They also responded to 218 other calls of various alarm activations that were false alarms.
As of May 26, 2021, the department had already responded to 47 false alarms for fires and 121 calls for other alarm activisites, he said.
There are some businesses in town that GFFR responds to constantly and one facility asked to alter their alarm system in violation of the code versus addressing the actual issue, McIntosh told commissioners.
GFFR officials are also recommending that the city adopt rules requiring entities to submit reports regarding their alarm systems and to contract with a third party vendor that collects those reports and reviews them initially and flags any issues and deficiencies for GFFR.
Currently, the department only receives reports from about half the alarm systems in the city since current code only allows the fire marshal to request those reports versus require them.
“We don’t know what’s going on in the majority of our community right now,” McIntosh told commissioners.