Sometimes perception is stronger than fact and with that idea in mind, Brainerd City Council members voted 4-3 to stop the fire department from responding to medical calls.
The council expects to revisit the issue on May 5.
The recommendation to stop the fire response to medical calls came from the city’s safety and public works committee and was approved by the full council in a split vote with four in favor and three opposed.
In a report to the council, Fire Chief Kevin Stunek stated the fire department responded to 674 medical calls during a nine-month period for an average of 75 calls per month or 2.5 calls per day. Additional fuel costs averaged $130 per month for the nine-month period.
During the committee session, Stunek said there are better outcomes for people when first responders are able to get there faster. Stunek said other fire departments, such as Pillager and Pequot, also respond to medical calls. The Brainerd Fire Department only responded to medical calls in the city of Brainerd. Council member Gary Scheeler said there is a perception in the township areas the fire department is passing on costs of responding to medical calls. Scheeler said his perception is most people don’t want the fire department to respond to medical calls. Council member Chip Borkenhagen said there is a concern the fire department is responding to minor medical issues and psychologically it may getting in the way. Borkenhagen asked Stunek, what if other communities say they’ll go somewhere else for fire protection if medical runs continue. Borkenhagen said another expressed concern was whether adding medical calls was a way to bolster the fire department’s roster.
“It’s not to bolster staffing,” Stunek said, adding if the department was overwhelmed with calls he would recommend it be stopped.
Council member Mary Koep said there was a real value in first responders and she’d like to see more of them in the community who could respond as they do in the rural areas. Stunek agreed but noted it takes a certain kind of person to respond at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. when it’s 20 below zero and the firefighters are trained first responders.
Council member Kelly Bevans said he’d vote against the motion to discontinue. He said as far as he can see this does nothing but good.
“It puts more people on the scene of a medical emergency faster. ... To me that’s what we should be doing,” Bevans said.
Bevans said it’s unknown how serious the call is until the responders arrive on the scene.
Borkenhagen said he still has questions and there is an expense but it seemed small compared to the difference it might make. Council member Dave Pritschet said a missing part is a dispatcher who needs to be able to screen medical calls, which would reduce the number. At this point, Pritschet said he’d rather err on the side of safety and continue to do medical calls.
Council member Dale Parks was concerned about having enough staff to cover everything. Parks said he was bothered by the perception the city was charging for the service and while he knows the city isn’t passing on that cost a lot of times perception is the piece that’s hard to overturn.
Scheeler said he also heard one perception North Memorial Ambulance was a private entity and was saving money as the fire department responded to calls. Stunek said he didn’t see that connection as the ambulance was dispatched in any case. Scheeler said the argument he heard was if the fire department was helping one business reduce costs maybe it should be out with the ladder truck helping tree trimming businesses. Stunek said he didn’t think those two situations were the same and responding to medical calls was about increasing the chances for survival.
Council President Bonnie Cumberland expressed concern firefighters were being spread too thin as they are also called to do inspections, training and education. When the department is spread too thin it isn’t able to do everything well, Cumberland said. Cumberland was in favor of dispatcher training and said this time away from medical calls would give the city an opportunity to work on a more smooth response and let townships see the city is the only area affected.
Pritschet said it seemed whether people were voting for or against, they were all heading to the same place.
The council voted with Koep, Scheeler, Parks and Cumberland in favor of stopping fire department response to medical calls with a revisit to the issue in May. Pritschet, Bevans and Borkenhagen voted against.