As calls for emergency medical assistance continue to rise in Tremonton and the surrounding area, officials continue working on a plan for the future of the city’s fire department, which is responsible for handling the ever-increasing call volume.
At last week’s city council meeting, the majority of the time was dedicated to a discussion about whether to hire full-time firefighters, or continue to rely primarily on the volunteers that make up the current force.
“We’re trying to find the best possible solution to a problem that we have,” Mayor Roger Fridal said. “We don’t know all the answers, and we’re looking for some help.”
In March, a consultant hired by the city to analyze the current staffing of the fire department and make recommendations for possible changes presented his findings based on more than six months of interviews and other research. That report recommended that the city spend $1.3 million to add new staff positions to the department and restructure it to rely less on volunteers.
To pay for it, officials said the city would have to raise its property tax rate by as much as 84 percent, a move that many have been reluctant or unwilling to support as Tremonton hasn’t raised its property tax rate in more than three decades.
Fire Chief Steve Batis started the discussion by giving his annual report to the council. Batis said his department responded to 1,233 EMS calls in 2019, which was a record high for the sixth consecutive year.
With three firefighters responding to each call, he said there were 3,699 instances last year when a member of his department was on a call. With about 30 total members, that comes out to approximately 120 calls for each volunteer.
On top of that increasing demand is the current situation with coronavirus restrictions, which have halted most training events and forced the fire department to cancel its annual Steak Fry fundraiser. That combination of factors has the department facing an unprecedented amount of pressure in fulfilling its mission “to provide the highest level of service to each and every member of our community in a timely manner,” Batis said.
“Our volunteers are giving everything they can and then some,” he added. “I’d put them up against anybody.”
Several members of the fire department participated in last week’s discussion, ranging from longtime members to new additions, providing a range of input as all interested parties continue to look for a solution.
Firefighter Chris Scothern said transfers of patients to hospitals in Ogden or Salt Lake City take up a huge amount of the department’s time.
“Transfers are going to increase, and that’s something we’re going to have to deal with,” Scothern said.
A typical transfer takes two or three volunteers out of town for three hours or longer, he said.
“Being that we’re already resource constrained, I personally think those are just killing us,” he said.
But rather than raise taxes to pay for full-time firefighters, Scothern said the department might be able to address growing demand by making improvements within its current structure.
“For us to be able to continue the way we are now, two things need to happen,” he said. “We need to figure out how to motivate the current members we have, and we need better recruiting practices.”
Batis said city staff has done a good job in its recruiting efforts, “but there’s just no interest in joining the fire department.”
Firefighter Oria Burningham said it’s difficult to stay available during the day without a specific on-call schedule. She said having paid staff on duty during daylight hours would help alleviate that issue.
“At night, I know I’m scheduled and supposed to be available,” Burningham said. “I would feel a lot more committed if I was on call certain days. When we don’t have a schedule, it feels kind of like a free-for-all.”
Some said the local population has grown to the point that the city won’t be able to avoid adding paid staff positions.
“You can’t support a system that’s going to grow exponentially without the fire department growing with it,” Firefighter Amy Cole said. “It’s only going to get worse because our town is booming. It’s putting more strain on an already strained situation.”
Capt. Jeff Oyler, a longtime member of the department, said he would like to see the department stay the way it is, but agreed that adding paid positions will be necessary in order to deal with the growth.
“No matter what we do, it’s coming that direction,” Oyler said. “We need to look at the cheapest way right now and get it going in right direction, either now or in the next year.”
Recruiting volunteers is more challenging than ever, since people have more commitments with their regular jobs and families, Firefighter James Munns said.
“You’re asking a lot of us,” Munns said. “A lot of these guys put their whole lives into this department, and it’s a top notch department right now and we want to keep it that way, but we need some help from the city.”
Battalion Chief Blair Westergard said there is no easy solution, but something has to be done to ensure the department can fulfill its obligations.
“It’s not a quick fix,” he said. “As leadership, we’ve beat our heads against the wall trying to figure out what to do. We need some kind of a guarantee, and the city needs to know that it’s covered.”
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah launched a new cell phone app Wednesday to track coronavirus symptoms and identify people who may have been exposed, known as contact tracing.
The state has contract worth up to a $2.75 million with the social-media company Twenty, which makes an app that helps people use location data to find their friends to hang out.
The company used its technology to build an app called “Healthy Together” for the state. People who download the app will get daily reminders to self-report any symptoms, then be directed to testing if they’re at risk. If a case is confirmed, the app will use cellphone location data to trace back everyone they may have exposed to the virus, even those people who they don’t know or never spoke with.
The approach is similar countries like South Korea, which used technology extensively to trace potential spread of the disease. Traditional contact tracing relies on people remembering who they have been in contact with, and requires a health-care worker to call each of those people and inform they about potential exposure.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said data privacy“of upmost concern.” People would have to opt-in, and location data will be deleted after 30 days, except in cases where there are legal requirements to keep it longer. Personally identifiable health data will also be deleted after 30 days, though data stripped of identifying information will be kept longer for COVID-19 efforts.
“I think this can help us, play a good healthy role in helping attack an enemy that is invisible,” Herbert said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.