By Jana Bounds EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Prior to 1993, members of Big Sky’s volunteer fire department would load patients into a van and speed toward Four Corners to meet responding ambulances. Although the practice was technically illegal, it was also conscionable—volunteers were providing the best care with scarce resources, Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat said.
Since then, the area has been burgeoning with population growth and it’s still faced with strains to provide emergency care.
To ease that strain, Farhat is asking the community to pass a $1.5 million mill levy request when ballots are mailed to Big Sky Fire District voters on Oct. 18.
Farhat said the funds are needed for adequacy, not extravagance.
“We are a part of the critical infrastructure for the community,” he said. “[Big Sky] is a growing, dynamic community under a lot of threats.”
In an effort to educate the populace and support transparency around the request, he has scheduled nine public meetings and posted information on the BSFD website to argue the merits of the extra funding. There’s also a calculator on the website to allow homeowners to get an approximate idea of cost.
Farhat acknowledges that the proposition of another mill levy tax for residents may be poorly received, but says that he would be remiss if he didn’t present the facts and offer the potential solution.
Farhat has been absorbing data for the past few years, seeking solutions. He says there are certain industry standards of which BSFD falls short: 15 personnel are needed to respond to a small house fire within 8-10 minutes. Farhat says he’s lucky to have seven responders in that amount of time. The industry standard for accidents is nine trained personnel; Big Sky residents are lucky to get four responders.
What worries him is when there are two emergencies in close succession, which happens 14 percent of the time and as high as 25 percent of the time during peak season, according to a 2015 study prepared by Emergency Services Consultants International. That’s when the personnel pinch is felt the most.
As it is now, BSFD does not have adequate staffing to respond to incidents 41 percent of the time. Also, incidents requiring BSFD response have increased by 101 percent since 2005.
Farhat is turning to residents, hoping they will help place the final piece of a puzzle he’s been laboring over for the past three years, since ESCI started their study. Those steps include an appropriation from the Big Sky Resort Area District board for a new fire engine, as well as a FEMA grant to fund three new firefighters.
Receipt of the FEMA grant demonstrates the need as they most often go to inner cities, Farhat said.
The mill levy will generate $1.5 million for the department annually and cost property owners approximately $3.27 a month or $39.30 a year per $100,000 in property value.
The department’s plan is to renovate Stations 1 and 2 for 24-hour occupancy and add 11 positions in phases over the next three years: nine firefighters, one fire marshal and a fire inspector.
The improvements and hirings will allow for BSFD to adequately face demands for emergency services, Farhat said, adding that BSFD has consistently been behind the curve and approval of the mill levy will better position the community for the future.
This is the third mill levy request by BSFD. The first request failed in 2008, and the second request passed in 2013.
All active registered voters who live in the Big Sky Fire District—in both Madison and Gallatin counties—will get a ballot mailed to them automatically on Oct. 18, and the results of the election will be tallied Nov. 7.
Property owners who are not registered voters but would like to vote may fill out a landowner request form found at bigskyfire.org/nr, and questions about the process can be directed to the Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder or the Madison County Clerk and Recorder.
The next meetings regarding the mill Levy request will be held at Big Sky Fire Station 1 on Oct. 4 at 9 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.; Oct. 9 at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and on Oct 23 at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.