By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – The Big Sky Fire Department is in the planning phase to build a new fire station and bring 13 more firefighters on board. The undertaking would require the passage of two mill levies in November and an appropriation from the Big Sky Resort Area District board this June.
Chief William Farhat said the community ask has three parts: a mill levy bond to build a new fire station; a permanent mill levy increase to add nine firefighters and one fire marshal to the department’s payroll; and a Big Sky Resort Tax Board request to the tune of approximately $950,000 for the addition of three battalion chiefs.
Farhat said he knows it’s a lot to ask of the community, but the need is significant. “We don’t have enough people responding to emergencies from enough locations,” he said. “We are still trying to [address] the issues that were brought up in 2005—in 2017. After 12 years trying to make things work and having this exponential growth, it’s almost like, enough’s enough.”
Farhat said the department struggles to serve the area’s sprawled-out topography, especially given the limited availability of mutual aid, or assistance from other fire departments in the form of additional firefighters and engines.
The fire department responds to an area that stretches roughly from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the south, the 35 mph bridge to the north, approximately halfway to Ennis on the Jack Creek Road to the west, and east into the Gallatin Range.
Farhat said the department considered remodeling the station near Town Center in West Fork Meadows, but it didn’t pencil out. The department still wouldn’t have been able to fit its ladder truck in its main facility—currently the department keeps it at Station 2, an unstaffed facility near Big Sky Resort—and the price tag for renovations totaled $3.7 million.
“The [primary] station is a 31-year-old building that was designed for volunteer firefighting,” Farhat said, noting its makeshift bedrooms and deficient training facilities. “It just didn’t make sense to put that much money into the building.”
While the current facility is inadequate, the location is good; the fire department is looking for another property in or near Town Center and is recruiting a construction manager to manage the building process. “It’s very difficult to find 3-acre parcel that’s not only available but affordable,” Farhat said of the fiscal challenges before the department.
Another component of the department’s plan includes remodeling Station 2 by 2019, if not sooner. That station was built during a time when the department was mostly volunteer-based and has no bedrooms; a remodel would allow for 24-hour staffing.
Additional firefighters would help the department manage 24/7 staffing, respond to multiple calls at once, and decrease response times. Right now, it takes the fire department 15 minutes or longer to respond to 20 percent of its calls. “Our goal should be eight minutes,” Farhat said. “Fifteen minutes is just ridiculously long and it’s a problem for us.”
It doesn’t appear that the volume of calls the department responds to—and the number of concurrent calls in particular—will drop any time soon. A report prepared last year by Emergency Services Consultants International forecasted that by the year 2020, the department would respond to 762 calls. Last year ended with 728 calls and Farhat predicts 2018 will top 780 given Big Sky’s growth.
“Even our professional forecasts said we’d have more time to prepare for this and we just don’t,” Farhat said. “We can’t put this off anymore … We have outstanding employees, but they aren’t superheroes.”
The fire department’s resort tax request for three battalion chiefs will total about $950,000, or approximately 18 percent of total appropriations if this year’s collections keep pace with last year’s. Asking for funding from the BSRAD makes sense given that 60 percent of the department’s operations address the needs of non-residents, Farhat said.
Details haven’t been completely ironed out yet, but some preliminary numbers have been identified. The bond for the new building would total $5.5 million collected over 15 years, and Big Sky residents would also vote up or down on a permanent mill levy increase for personnel that would result in an additional $1 million of annual funding.
In 2013, voters approved a $485,000 bond that helped the department bring on five additional firefighters, and the department currently employs 15. Each shift is staffed with five firefighters, in addition to three paid on-call firefighters and three paid on-call EMTs that are used as needed.
The owner of a property with a $300,000 taxable value would pay an additional $13.75 per month if both mill levies pass in November. That number would decrease as the bond is paid off, but wouldn’t exceed $13.75.
“That’s not cheap, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” Farhat said. He added that in many ways, the area’s growth is a success story—but it’s not something he steers one way or the other. “That’s for other people to decide, but people look to me and say, ‘Why aren’t you prepared to address it?’
“We just have to bite the bullet and do it,” Farhat said. “If I could do it with less, trust me I would.”