Volunteers argue to keep ambulance service
By KATHLEEN GILLULY
Outlook managing editor
At Monday’s Emergency Services committee meeting, the overwhelming advice from volunteers was to support the ambulance service and give them time to correct the problems rather than going with a county-wide rural service, which would include Laurel. There were a number of volunteers from the Laurel Ambulance Service in attendance. Laurel Volunteer Fire Chief Brent Peters and Laurel Police Department Chief Rick Musson also attended. Members of the committee included Councilman and committee Chairman Doug Poehls, Councilmen Bruce McGee and Tom Nelson, and at-large members Clete Knaub and Pat Kimmet.
After a short introduction of the agenda, Poehls opened the floor for comments.
“We do have issues, we are are draining the swamp, but we need time,” said DJ Poolet, a long-time volunteer with the ambulance service. She, along with several others, expressed dismay at an article in the Outlook last week on March 9. The interview with Brad Shoemaker, Yellowstone County Director of Emergency Services, pointed out weaknesses with the current volunteer ambulance service, primarily its inability to respond to all calls.
“Do simple math, one rig cannot handle the calls we will get on one snowy day,” Poolet said.
Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Firefighter Levi Vandersloot, who volunteers frequently as a fire driver for the ambulance service when they don’t have personnel available, agreed.
“When we get a call and that ambulance is in Broadview no one will be able to respond here,” he said. He added that the proposed county-wide service was “a great deal for the county,” although not for Laurel.
“I’d personally like to see the levy back on the board,” he said. “I’d like to see at least a partially paid service here.” He suggested separating out the ambulance service for its own levy, not combining it with police and fire.
Myron Gross, a volunteer with the Park City Ambulance Service said there is no reason Laurel can’t have a paid service. He also said he’d like to see the books as it appeared to him there was plenty of money budgeted.
Ambulance Director Kara Hergenrider supplied some figures for the committee.
“In 2016, there were 951 calls,” she said. “Laurel ambulance didn’t have a crew for 137 of those and was unable to transport. AMR was unavailable 99 times last year.” AMR is the ambulance service in Billings. It is also short-handed, but gets called to Laurel for mutual aid, as does Park City, Columbus and on occasion, Red Lodge, when Laurel crews are unable to respond.
Hergenrider said that one day there were 11 ambulance calls and that the Laurel volunteers responded to all 11 calls.
“There are calls going unanswered,” she said, “but AMR can’t cover their own calls, let alone come into Laurel.” She echoed Poolet and added that the Outlook was very biased.
Committee member Clete Knaub, an assistant professor of business and aviation at Rocky Mountain College pointed out that using Hergenrider’s numbers, the volunteers were missing 14 percent of calls. Knaub asked how many people would book airplane tickets if 14 percent of the flights didn’t take off.
LVFD Chief Peters told the committee that he had presented the idea of Laurel and the county working together.
“We overcame and adapted to a lot of things this year,” he said. “We met all our goals except to provide 100 percent coverage. I believe there is a solution.” Peters would like to keep Laurel’s current service, but use them just for calls in the city limits.
Knaub praised the volunteers and told them the current discussion wasn’t about their competency or volunteerism.
“But we have a problem and it’s not with you,” he said. It’s money.” He also said he had no confidence that a safety mill levy could be successful.
Ultimately, the committee agreed to recommend to the county that three ambulance be stationed in Laurel and that mutual aid agreements continue.