Missoula first responders rushed through a neighborhood, Milk-Bones in hand, as they searched for a small brown King Charles Spaniel during an emergency call last week.
El Diablo, the runaway dog, had barely settled back into his owner’s arms before the shrill beep of the Missoula Fire Department’s emergency alert sent the engine accelerating toward another incident.
While situations like El Diablo are relatively rare, first responders in Missoula increasingly find themselves going from one call to another.
The Missoula Fire Department alone has seen a 52% increase in call volume over the past five years.
“Call volumes have continued to increase as the city expands,” Deputy Chief Philip Keating said.
A growing population, especially in the high-use category, which includes older Missoulians and homeless people, is contributing to the increased call volume.
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Missoula Fire Department
The level of growth is rapidly outpacing the operations of agencies like the Missoula Fire Department, which hasn’t seen an increase in hiring since the late 2000s.
The Missoula Fire Department currently consists of 79 operations staff at five stations.
Last year, they answered 11,246 calls in total. These were split between 7,170 emergency medical service calls, 977 service calls, 322 danger calls and 211 fire calls.
Call volume increased significantly: 9,437 in 2020, 8,925 in 2019, 9,043 in 2018 and 8,651 in 2017. Part of this increase can be attributed to the addition of the Mobile Support Unit, a special response team consisting of two firefighters which was added in fall 2020.
The call volume trend is straining fire department operations.
The Missoula Fire Department is aiming for 90% station reliability, a metric that would see a given fire station respond to a call in its own district nine times out of 10. Increasingly, however, stations are drawn by emergencies outside their districts because they cover other stations in the department.
“Depending on the timelines, we fall below that 90%,” Keating said.
Station reliability is crucial, as a locomotive in position in its own neighborhood can respond more quickly to an emergency than a locomotive coming from another neighborhood.
Keating stressed the importance of rapid response when faced with scenarios such as strokes and cardiac arrests.
“It becomes a lot more important depending on the type of call, so it’s important to have these stations staffed,” Keating explained.
When firefighters are drawn to extra calls outside their districts, it also reduces their training time, Keating added.
The fire department sought to mitigate the impacts of the station’s declining reliability by adding an additional response unit, an ambulance staffed with two firefighters capable of handling low-severity calls.
“We’ve tried to align that with our higher call volume times in order to have additional staff to cover some of those calls,” Keating said.
According to Keating, this program was effective, but the funding was insufficient and it had to be abandoned.
Now, the Missoula Fire Department is requesting an additional engine during peak hours in its proposal for this fiscal year’s budget.
“It would give us additional advantages: they could make any call. They could run low acuity, high acuity, they could run fire calls, rescue calls, vehicle crashes, and they would be staffed with three people,” Keating said. He added that the additional engine would create more training opportunities for firefighters on staff.
But Keating wasn’t sure the city’s financial climate would allow another engine to be added.
“With the current budget, we’re trying to figure out how to make it work again,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult for us, so we’re going to look at other ways to change that.”
Missoula Rural Fire
Outside the city limits, firefighters face similar dilemmas.
The Missoula Rural Fire District has seen calls increase 22.5% over the past two years.
In 2020, the fire district received 2,783 calls for service. In 2021, this number has increased to 3,210.
Call volume for this year is 1,771 to date, up to 3,590 for the year as a whole.
“I know Montana is seeing, for many reasons, a sharp increase,” Chief Chris Newman said.
In Newman’s experience, population influx is one of the biggest contributors to increased call volume.
“Obviously we’re seeing a big jump,” Newman noted. “Everyone is seeing an increase in the number of people coming into this great state.”
With this jump, Missoula Rural Fire faces additional obstacles.
“The steady increase in call volumes is concerning,” Newman said.
He added that the fire district was receiving an increase in collision calls, which occur when two emergency calls come in at the same time.
“The likelihood of this happening increases as our call volume increases,” Newman explained. “That’s one of our concerns.”
Like his city counterpart, Newman said it would help increase the strength of the Missoula Rural Fire Department.
Some stations only have two firefighters on staff at any given time, according to Newman.
“We could easily have 20 more firefighters on staff right now and probably still be technically understaffed,” he said.
But volunteerism is down and an increase in hiring could only come with a voter-approved factory tax hike.
With limited resources and rising call volume, Newman said, “we’re trying to find a balance.”
Although less drastic, other emergency service providers have also seen increased call volumes in recent years.
For the past 20 years, Missoula Emergency Services Inc. ambulances have seen their call volume in the city increase by 4-5% each year. Last year, MESI call volume jumped 9%.
Director Jeff Welch attributed the increase to population growth.
“We probably had a boost,” he said.
The MESI has recently noted a particular increase in inter-agency calls involving transfers between establishments. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred this increase as facilities reached capacity.
These transfers can take place as far away as Mineral and Granite Counties and even in Spokane and Kalispell.
“We go everywhere,” Welch said. “It’s just hard for us. Life is hard. That’s why it’s a four-letter word.
Still, Welch said the private ambulance company usually has the resources it needs to respond to day-to-day calls.
“It happens where you get these surges,” Welch admitted, but he said increases in call volumes are usually “short-lived.”
Law enforcement is one area that has not seen an increase in call volume.
Both the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office have noticed a decrease in call volume over the past few years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that demand for their services is decreasing.
Lydia Arnold, public information officer for the Missoula Police Department, said the MPD has recently seen an increase in violent crimes and complex calls requiring the response of multiple officers, even as overall call volume is decreasing.
The volume of calls to the police was 32,581 in 2018, 31,628 in 2019 and 29,239 in 2020.
Impaired driving and situations where someone had to be fired both increased over those three years.
Drug-related incidents, traffic accidents, thefts and traffic checks all declined over the same period.
In the sheriff’s office, call volume in 2017 was 26,959, followed by 27,386 calls in 2018 and 25,444 in 2019. Calls dropped to 21,804 in 2020 before rebounding to 22,789 in 2021.
Arnold pointed out that law enforcement is not exempt from the growth pressures that other agencies face.
“As the city grows, the demand on the police increases,” she said.