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Yellowstone County commissioners struggling to improve rural ambulance service

By Kelsey Merison,


A lack of rural ambulance services continues to plague Billings’ surrounding communities . On Thursday, Yellowstone County Commissioners met to discuss how to fix the problem, focusing on a rotation system for calls for service from dispatch.

“We might chart a path forward, determine if we need to modify our dispatch policy a little bit if it’s not working for everyone," said Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund before the meeting on Thursday. "We want to be fair to everyone out there."

For several years, many have complained about long wait times for ambulances to arrive, especially in rural areas. Ambulance providers like American Medical Response have been vocal about a lack of resources and suitable employees.

“It’s been a 25-year discussion trying to find someone who can help provide better service for transport in the rural areas. Recently we’ve had a new provider come on and he was in Monday, struggling with getting calls from dispatch," Ostlund said. "So we need to take a look at what things in the system might not be working right. And we need to find a way to get him included in the rotation so that we can provide that service that we’ve worked so hard to get." Kelsey Merison/MTN News
John Ostlund

Ostlund is referring to John Briggs, the chief operating officer at America First Response, the newest ambulance service provider in Yellowstone County.

"All of us expect that when you pick up the phone and call 911, there are people there to help," Briggs said on Thursday. “Since we went available with 911 we have had two calls. And that’s in about two and a half months."

America First Response started accepting calls for service a little more than two months ago. But despite a big shortage of ambulance services in the area, they aren’t receiving many calls. Kelsey Merison/MTN News
John Briggs

"I can’t say for sure why we have not received the calls,” Briggs said.

The calls are still coming in, but county officials say they are not being forwarded by dispatch to America First Response. Instead, the majority go to American Medical Response, another privately owned firm.

"If it's not the jurisdiction that has the primary responsibility, the next call goes to AMR," K.C. Williams, the DES coordinator for Yellowstone County, explained during the discussion on Thursday. Kelsey Merison/MTN News
K.C. speaking to the commissioners

Commissioners now want to intervene to establish a work crew to look into the problem and work with dispatch to create a rotation system that distributes the calls.

“We’ve discussed this issue over and over and over for years and haven’t found a solution," Ostlund said. "Now we have an additional provider licensed by the state, and so I’m kind of hopeful that this will add into the mix enough service that will get everybody taken care of."

A new provider in town helps in the shortage problem, but only if the calls are sent their way. Kelsey Merison/MTN News
America First Response ambulance

Until decisions are made, companies like America First Response are left waiting to be called into action.

“Our next steps I think are going to depend a lot on what comes out of this meeting today. If the current resources that are in place are able to maintain and keep the citizens covered, and that means we back out of the way, then so be that. As long as the citizens are covered, that’s all we care about. If it means that we’re going to take a greater role in 911, then we’ve got to look at it operationally from our side and see how to grow to be able to offer the service more,” Briggs said. “We just want to see the problem resolved, however that looks."

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