TRAVERSE CITY — Making Traverse City Fire Department the city’s primary emergency management services transport provider would be a costly undertaking.
Buying two new ambulances, as would be needed, would cost up to $500,000 for both, according to a study by TriData. Then, the city would need to spend $755,000 to $1,548,000 on staffing to add seven to nine employees to each shift. That doesn’t include the costs of modifying Stations 1 and 2 to accommodate the larger crews.
Charging for services would cover some of the costs, but EMS transport rarely turns a profit, according to the study. The city could anticipate $484,000 in revenues for transport each year, and up to $338,000 if it charges for EMS first responder services without transport.
That’s the findings of a study city commissioners will hear more about at their study session Monday. City Fire Chief Jim Tuller said the idea of Traverse City becoming a primary EMS transport provider goes back to the 1980s when a countywide ambulance service dissolved and Munson Healthcare took over.
“The city fire department has at some level always had an interest in providing that extra level of care for our citizens, the people we work for, the people that pay the taxes for the wages, our equipment, the stations and everything,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve gotten this far.”
TCFD paramedics currently respond to medical calls and treat the patient until Medical Mobile Response EMS shows up, Tuller said — the company and North Flight EMS recently merged, with MMR taking over ambulance services as of Dec. 1, he said. The city fire department serves as backup transport if the primary transporter isn’t available.
The study won’t provide any recommendations for what city leaders should do, but will provide data for the discussion, Tuller said. It took some time to put together, with pandemic delays and 911 call data-mining difficulties to blame for some of the lapse.
Expanding the department, should city leaders opt to do so in the future, would be a big undertaking, and Tuller said the study should outline options for forming subcommittees to investigate further.
Other challenges include the cost of replacing ambulances every five to seven years, and the difficulties in growing the department’s ranks in an increasingly competitive hiring environment, Tuller said — something every first responder agency faces, he added. But he believes Traverse City’s allure gives the department a hiring advantage.
City Commissioner Ashlea Walter said she is still taking in the report’s information and weighing the three main choices: Stay the course, stick with MMR but start charging first responder fees to the ambulance service, or upgrade TCFD’s to become a primary transporter.
The current arrangement seems duplicative, with two agencies responding to medical calls in the city, Walter said.
“Certainly we’re at a crossroads with opportunities for growth, and all this data right in front of us shows us some good possibilities for directions we want to take,” she said.
Commissioner Tim Werner was less optimistic that the study would give city leaders what they need to decide their next course of action, he said. But he held out hope that he would be “pleasantly surprised,” and agreed it’s likely to advance the conversation either way.
Werner said he’s interested in hearing more about the city possibly recouping first responder costs.
Commissioners also are set to hear a year-end update on tree-planting and maintenance efforts from city Parks and Recreation Superintendent Derek Melville. Meeting documents show he’ll detail efforts like planting 556 trees since 2018, when a citywide canopy assessment was completed.
Werner, long a proponent of planting more trees in the city, said he thinks the city’s done well but could be doing more.
“If the vision and goal is to increase the tree canopy in the future, we need to be planting trees,” he said. “That takes political will for us as a city commission to say this is a priority and we want to invest in it.”
That money could be spread across the budget of several departments, and he argued that trees should be considered infrastructure given their usefulness — Melville’s report estimated the trees planted since 2018 would drink 555,000 gallons of water per year when mature, and sequester 278,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes.
Hiring more maintenance staff to tend city trees was a good idea, Werner said. He backed Melville’s past recommendation to do so over hiring an urban forestry expert, and said he would rather see the money spent on more trees.
Walter said she thinks the city should hire an expert.
“I realize that’s one person versus multiple tree trimmers, but we really would benefit from someone with professional expertise in that specific area to really look at the entire city, the canopy and the amazing old trees that we have in our downtown neighborhoods and so many of them sort of dying off around the same time,” she said.
Commissioners also expect to hear an update on the city’s six-year Capital Improvement Plan outlining major park and infrastructure projects. Both Werner and Walter said they’d like an update on plans to replace or overhaul four city bridges.