BILLINGS — When an ambulance is called, it's generally because there's an emergency. Unfortunately for residents of Yellowstone County, the request for an ambulance is usually accompanied by a long wait and sometimes no ambulance at all.
For K.C. Williams, the response to medical emergencies, or sometimes lack thereof, has reached a pivotal point in the county.
"We have accidents that occur and sometimes it's 45 minutes, an hour, or even two hours, and in a lot of cases we end up having to call other counties to bring their ambulance into our county," said Williams, the director of disaster and emergency services for Yellowstone County.
In some cases, many people have a family member or friend take them to the hospital after enough time has passed, according to Williams. Yellowstone County has just 10 available ambulances on a given day to cover the entire county, some of which are volunteer.
"We get calls back to 911 where some of the emergency response agencies call back and say well, how bad is it? Before they decide to go, and that's not a good thing," said Williams.
Williams stated that many of the volunteer responders are "fantastic" and "they're lucky to have them." The bigger issue is scarcity of volunteers on top of the scarcity of units. So, just because there's an ambulance available doesn't mean a driver will be.
This has led to the county needing help from surrounding counties at higher rate than they'd like to see.
"It's been no less than 20 times this year that we’ve had to find ambulance services from outside the county because either we didn’t have enough ambulances to answer all the 911 calls at the moment or where the call was just didn’t have ambulance service and no one would go," said Williams.
Like most issues, this problem comes down to one thing: money. Williams says ambulances cost over a million dollars to purchase and operate, and a solution needs to be found because the current state of affairs presents a pretty significant "public safety hazard."
"We can’t solve the problem without money, unfortunately. So, it’s a matter of who’s going to be able to pay for the very expensive venture of ambulance care? In my personal opinion, it's going to be a collective citizen, agency and government effort to solve it," he said.