Fire department presentation on updated master plan includes discussion on response to medical calls

In this 2018 file photo, Gold Cross Ambulance arrives to transport a passenger to the hospital after crash on Brigham Road and Hidden Valley Drive, St. George, Utah, Nov. 7, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Given the growth St. George is experiencing, city officials have realized that many departments must update their master plans. The city’s fire service is among these departments.

During a recent presentation to the City Council, St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker detailed current and future considerations, including the transition in staffing from a volunteer force to paid personnel, current and future fire station locations and response times throughout the city.

Although no action was immediately taken at the meeting, Stoker briefly touched on the department’s medical calls and how the city’s growth might dictate changes to responding to these types of calls.

This year the fire department has handled approximately 5,700 calls. Of those, 80% of the 911 calls are for medical reasons, which Stoker said is a very common percentage nationwide.

St. George City Councilwoman Bette Ariel offered a possible avenue for future consideration.

“I just want to throw this out,” Ariel said. “I don’t want to do this, but would it be feasible to look at having the fire department do the ambulance service as well?”

St. George Fire Chief Robert Stoker presents his latest update to the Fire Department’s master plan to the City Council, St. George, Utah, Oct. 24, 2019 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Stoker said it is a political decision but that it was something the department has considered in the past.

“If we did this, it would mean an increase in staffing for us as well purchasing additional apparatus, which would be a huge capital expense,” Stoker said.

When city firefighters respond to a medical call, the department does not collect any fees. However, the state does set a maximum fee that can be charged, and generally the responding ambulance company – which is currently Gold Cross for the city — is paid that fee.

“We are not required to show up on medical calls,” Stoker said. “It is a service that we provide.”

Councilman Jimmie Hughes pressed Stoker on the logic.

“If we have an ambulance service that’s paid to do that, then why do we do it as well?” Hughes asked.

Hughes added that in some towns, firefighters certified as paramedics provide the medical service and the ambulance provides transport to the hospital.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike said this is something the city can look at, but there are a lot of challenges that go along with such a drastic change in service, including the costs and potential legal issues.

“Eighty percent is big,” Pike said. “I had someone say to me recently that maybe it’s time to have a full paramedic service, and there are various ways you can achieve that. … But the costs would be extensive. However, like other things, you could pay for that over time.”

Each council member acknowledged there are pros and cons to a private ambulance service versus a city firefighter-provided paramedic service.

“To me, I don’t know why we don’t look at this,” Hughes said. “When I had a medical issue at my house, the first people to show up was the fire department.”

Stoker said this topic has been kicked around for years, but past city councils have embraced staying with the private ambulance service. For now, city staff says things will remain status quo with both fire department personnel and Gold Cross ambulance personnel responding to medical calls, but further analysis may be warranted.

In a separate interview, Pike told St. George News there are always possibilities and that there is a process to follow as a city, which is defined by the state.

“But this would be a huge change for us,” Pike said. “There are no imminent plans to do this, but it certainly is something that could be discussed in the future.”

It’s always good, he added, to look inside and outside of city departments, analyzing their costs, options and the level of service provided to the citizens.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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