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Local fire department adds five to its ranks

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By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Big Sky can put its fire and emergency care worries to rest.
At the end of September, the Big Sky Fire Department extended provisional
employment offers to five EMT firefighter candidates vying for positions with
the department.
Three locals and two out of state firefighters will don the Big Sky Fire uniform
beginning Monday, Oct. 21, when they officially start the department’s
training academy. They include Michael Bakke from Bellingham, Wash. and
Michael LeBlanc from Vail, Colo., who will fall in line alongside Big Sky locals
Mitch Hamel, John Foster and Dennis Rush.
Rush started volunteering with the department in 2010 then left the next
year for Denver. He returned to Big Sky in October 2012 and plugged back
into the system, earning his EMT and other training requirements. Hamel and
Foster have volunteered since 2010, each of them spending as much time as
they could spare over that span.
“We were keeping up with learning and training as much as possible, soaking
in all the information the career guys were willing to give away,” Hamel said.
“I [knew] this was what I wanted to do, and to do it here in Big Sky is
incredible. They’re some of the best paramedics and firefighters around.”
Chief Bill Farhat expects the four-week training will be a strong team-building
supplement to the new hires’ already advanced levels of emergency training.
“[Bakke and LeBlanc] have [worked] in fire stations for multiple years,” Farhat
said. “Both come well trained, and it’s exciting for us to have some [new
faces] in our group.”
The hirings were supported by a $485,000 mill levy approved by voters last
May. The levy increased Big Sky homeowners’ taxes from $22 to $33.04 per
$1,000 of their home’s taxable value.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration nationally requires at
least four first responders on an incident at any given time. In the past, the
department has been forced to operate with two to three firefighters on
scene.
Farhat says his new employees will fill a significant need in Big Sky – one that
exists even with Bozeman Deaconess building a medical facility on Lone
Mountain Trail.
“A new hospital does not negate the need for an appropriate number of
firefighters,” he said. “We have all manner of emergencies we respond to on a regular basis – fires, car accidents… We’re here for everything, not just
ambulance use.”
As in much of the country, the hiring process in Big Sky was highly
competitive, with 83 applicants. The rigorous 5-month process began in June,
when applicants took the mandatory Montana Firefighter Consortium test.
“We had to screen through them, and 23 were rejected right away,” Farhat
said, emphasizing that negative background checks and mistakes on the
written application led to the cuts.
After more than a year talking with the community and planning to expand,
the expansion gives the chief a marked sense of relief.
“[This] makes it easier for me to sleep at night,” he said. “The fire service in
general is a labor-intensive environment, and there’s nothing worse than not
being able to respond to emergencies effectively.”

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