For decades, the City of Columbus has proudly provided Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to the Duncan Rural and Columbus Rural fire protection districts while also taking on the associated expense.
Unfortunately, the City can no longer in good faith have its taxpayers shoulder the cost.
“I think that when the community of Columbus was smaller, these services were easily offered with the resources that the City had at the time,” Columbus Fire Chief Ryan Gray said.
“As the community has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the level of service that has grown to be expected. The City has seen a significant increase in calls for service over the past five years. This increase has made it difficult to keep up.”
Numbers don’t lie. Since 2018, the Columbus Fire Department has had an overall 14.58% increase in calls. Of that, there has been an 80.09% increase in fire calls (equating to 20.62% per year). That rise in calls across the board coupled with limited staff is a problem City leaders want to avoid moving forward.
EMS is not an essential service, according to the State Legislature, so no single entity is technically responsible for any party to provide the services. Despite this, City of Columbus leaders are concerned services could fall by the wayside for rural areas or negatively affect Columbus residents in the future if a solution isn’t figured out soon.
“Increased call volume outside of the city limits puts undue stress on our system. When calls for service come from outside the city, there can be a void in our ability to respond to the next call received,” Mayor Jim Bulkley said. “This can be because personnel and equipment are 10-15 miles away on the first call, thus slowing response time accordingly. We cannot afford to have a void in service.”
Gray and other City of Columbus leaders said they believe that staffing an additional ambulance would prevent a potential void in service. This staffing would cost approximately $600,000 annually, covering salaries and ancillary costs of hiring the necessary six firefighters/paramedics.
Gray, City Administrator Tara Vasicek and Platte County Board of Supervisor Kim Kwapnioski had an initial discussion about EMS services in August 2022. Then, in December 2022, Gray, Vasicek, Bulkley, Columbus Assistant Fire Chief Nathan Jones, along with City Councilmembers Troy Hiemer and Charlie Bahr, began having periodic meetings with representatives of the Platte County Board of Supervisors, Duncan Rural and Columbus Rural to work toward a solution.
“I feel the conversations have been going well. This a very complex problem that will require creative thinking to fix,” Gray said. “Conversations have been respectful and informative.
“This has been no easy task for anyone involved. I think that the members of all parties have done a great job at expressing their concerns and communicating with the goal of finding a solution.”
In those meetings, City officials said, there have been discussion about Duncan Rural and Columbus Rural fire protection districts potentially raising their levies to come up with about $311,000 annually to go toward the EMS expense. That’s a good start, City leaders said, but does not solve the problem.
“Using the $311,000 figure would only allow for three additional personnel, which equates to one person per shift. This does not allow for us to staff an additional ambulance,” Gray said. “Each ambulance requires a minimum crew of two. The $311,000 simply does not fix the issue. Our goal is to have an additional ambulance staffed to account for additional call volume.”
City officials have heard from the public about alternative options that unfortunately can’t work, such as the E-911 phone surcharge. Funds from that go to the Joint Communications Center, City leaders noted, and do not go toward any EMS service.
The City of Columbus does have Mutual Aid agreements in place with many surrounding communities, including Duncan, according to the mayor. But, he cautioned, those agreements say that communities should not offer mutual aid if offering such aid leaves their community vulnerable to lack of service.
The group of leaders meeting about EMS service made a self-imposed deadline of March 15, 2023, in an effort to keep everyone on track and figure out a solution. But, Gray said, it was never communicated or intended as a drop-dead date for the City of Columbus to stop providing the service.
“We understand that this issue is complex and has never been addressed by any of the parties,” Gray said. “It has been the general understanding that any decisions made involving financial obligations would not be able to be implemented until the start of the County’s budget year in July.
“It is also understood that it would more than likely be a tiered implementation if additional staffing is approved, which would be based on factors within the hiring process. The expectation would be that money would not be due until such time staff is hired.”
Mayor Bulkley echoed that sentiment, stressing that no hasty decisions will ever be made regarding this issue. Officials are doing their homework by putting together call history, personnel needs, equipment needs and the cost associated with maintaining the proper services. They’re also keeping a constant dialogue among everyone involved.
“With this information, we will be coming to all affected entities with a plan. We are gathering the necessary information so we can make intelligent decisions,” Bulkley said. “EMS services are not cheap. Our intent is to develop a program that serves the citizens outside of Columbus while maintaining the necessary services inside the city. And in so doing spread the financial responsibility equitably among those that use it.”
Gray, who has been at the helm of the Columbus Fire Department for one year, reiterated that talking about the topic is not easy in the sense that he wants everyone to have service. But, he said, he also wants to ensure Columbus taxpayers are getting what they pay for and that everyone can be rest assured they will get a quick and efficient response whenever they have to dial 9-1-1.
“We have been lucky so far to not have to make a decision on which call we respond to, either City or Rural, and it is my goal to prevent any of our staff from having to make that decision. This is why we are addressing this now …,” Gray said.
“It is my wish that all who rely on this service would pay their fair share. We do not want to be faced with the difficult decision of providing service or not, but we cannot continue providing the service outside of the city with the financial burden being placed on the backs of our residents and business owners.”
(ABOUT THE PHOTO: Columbus Fire Chief Ryan Gray, left, and Mayor Jim Bulkley pose for a picture in front of the ambulances at the Columbus Fire Department.)