By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert Fire Department won’t be sending a four-person manned fire truck to minor medical incidents like nose bleeds or non-serious injuries from car accidents beginning in July 2020.

Instead, it will deploy an emergency medical technician and a paramedic in a smaller rescue vehicle to non-life threatening 911 calls in an effort to maintain a four-minute response for high-priority emergencies in a growing town. Seventy-five percent of the department’s calls involve medical responses.

The town conducted a year-long pilot “low acuity medical” program that ended in January 2018.

“We transported more patients than anticipated,” Fire Chief Jim Josbusch said. “A lot had to do with why people called us. They had no other options beyond the emergency room, which is indicative of the problem of the overall health system.”

Josbusch presented the pilot program’s finding at a recent council retreat.

Although the two-person, low-acuity unit is redundant at the present time, it has a place in Gilbert, Jobusch said.

He recommended that the town in the 2020-21 fiscal year put one unit at Station No. 3 at Guadalupe and Lindsay roads and add a second unit in the 2021-22 fiscal year possibly at Station No. 8 at Germann Road and Val Vista Drive.

Adding the low-acuity response teams also will create the need for a so-called “adaptive response unit” in the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to Josbusch.

An adaptive response unit is a four-person staffed engine truck that fills holes within the department’s coverage of the community, according to Battalion Chief Mark Justus. For example, if fire personnel at one station is out on a call or is in training, the unit fills in, he said.

One adaptive response unit or two low-acuity units each require 13 firefighters for staffing. But the adaptive response unit’s start-up cost is over $1 million compared with the $300,000 for two low-acuity units.

And, an engine truck costs $25 to $65 an hour to operate, depending on the age of the truck, while a ladder truck costs $50 to $95 an hour. A low-acuity vehicle is one-fourth of those costs, Josbusch said.

“There’s a lot of benefits with moving forward with this,” he said.

The department kicked off its pilot program Jan. 30, 2017 at Station No. 3. It added ambulance transports in August 2017.

The unit responded to 1,461 calls for service. In 74 of those instances, an engine or ladder truck was available for a high-priority assignment, according to the chief’s presentation. A total 106 incidents required an engine or ladder truck as back up and 231 needed an ambulance.

The unit’s response times ranged from a low of 8 minutes and 57 seconds to a high of 10 minutes and 48 seconds. A bulk or 93 percent of the calls saw a response time under 15 minutes.

Vice Mayor Eddie Cook asked if the pilot program can continue, but Jobusch said there was not the staff to do it. The four firefighters the department hired for the program are now at Station No. 9, he said.

Cook also asked if the department has a way to recover the cost of responding to minor services from group homes that may call 50 times and should have their own medical personnel on board.

Jobusch said Gilbert is a fairly young community with not a lot of assisted-care and elderly care facilities.

He added that a number of municipalities are now charging a fee for service for those types of calls. He said he wanted to wait and see how that was working out in other communities and that the department didn’t want to discourage residents from calling for help.

Omaha Fire Department reportedly last year began charging a $400 fee when called out to lift someone who has fallen at a nursing or assisted living facility.

Cook said the town should look at implementing a policy now before calls of that nature ramp up in 10 years and become a problem.

Jobusch said he belongs to an East Valley group that is talking about this issue and that he needed 12 months to get more information to bring back to council. Councilwoman Brigette Peterson asked if the department can hire civilians instead of firefighters for the low-acuity units.

Jobusch said it was more effective to have firefighters in those units, which likely would be dispatched to a fire and would need that training. He added the cost difference of hiring civilians versus firefighters wasn’t significant.