By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – A lack of nearby fire departments able to assist the Big Sky Fire Department, multiple calls coming in at once in a large district, and the importance of enforcing fire codes for new construction were among topics discussed at BSFD’s master plan presentation Jan. 21.
During the second half of 2015, Emergency Services Consulting International collected data, observed the department’s daily operations, and incorporated that material into a 141-page document of findings and recommendations for both current and projected needs.
Lane Wintermute, a senior associate with Wilsonville, Ore.-based ESCI, presented those findings to approximately 35 community members at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District meeting room.
Wintermute said that – with the exception of the Yellowstone Club Fire Department – Big Sky is a long way from other departments available to contribute manpower and resources for emergency response.
“It’s a very unique situation and it really challenges the fire department,” he said.
BSFD Chief William Farhat said that the fire district boundary is 57 square miles, but the department actually responds to a much larger area because there’s no one else to respond.
The size of the district factors into another area of concern: concurrent calls, or calls that come in at the same time. BSFD is able to finish responding to a call without another one coming in about 85 percent of the time; the other 15 percent, they’re forced to juggle two or three calls with limited resources.
“If you’re in Spanish Peaks [Mountain Club] and you need to drive to Moonlight, well that’s 20, 25 minutes. It takes forever to get there and that’s hard to deal with for a department,” Farhat said.
The department staffs four firefighters on an average shift. Farhat said this typically means calling in full-time firefighters to work overtime hours.
According to Wintermute, Big Sky firefighters spend 1 hour and 21 minutes on an average call. The department reaches incidents within 15 minutes approximately 80 percent of the time.
“Twenty percent of our calls take us more than 20 minutes to get to? That’s a really high number. That’s bad,” Farhat said, adding that the department needs to look into ways to bring response time down.
Options might include more staff and staffing the second station located in Big Sky Resort’s Mountain Village, which is currently used for equipment storage and as a meeting place for personnel.
“At some point in the future, that facility is going to need to be staffed and it’s probably going to need to be modified,” Wintermute said, adding that residential and sleeping quarters for crew would likely need to be added.
Wintermute also said code enforcement on new construction is “hugely important” because once a structure has been built, it becomes the responsibility of BSFD “for the rest of its life, until it falls down.
“You need to make sure these large, high-risk buildings with a lot of people in them do not catch fire,” he said, “because if they do, you might not be able to put them out, quite frankly.”
Farhat said he does what he can to enforce the fire code, but there’s little time to do so, and his approach has centered on education.
“If we choose to strongly enforce [the fire code], the county attorney is overloaded. We can use [BSFD’s] private attorney … and I try to plug that hole, but there’s just not enough time in the day to do that,” he said.
The BSFD board of trustees understands the department is shorthanded in that regard and resources for building review are tight all the way around, Farhat said. There’s one state building inspector assigned to this area, and one building code plan reviewer statewide, he added.
Other topics of conversation included the department ladder truck – which is currently located at the unstaffed station in Mountain Village – and how the opening of the Big Sky Medical Center has impacted the department.
Farhat said transporting medical patients to BSMC rather than driving all the way to Bozeman has helped him keep resources in Big Sky.
The BSFD board of trustees will use ESCI’s findings to guide its policies the next 10 to 15 years.
Wintermute ended his presentation by urging Big Sky to make use of the plan.
“That’s probably the most important conversation to have now – now that you have it, what are you going to do with it? We really don’t like to see these master plans gather dust.”