By Jessianne Wright
BIG SKY – The Big Sky Fire Department has seen a steep increase in emergency calls in recent years, leading the department to undertake hiring 13 more firefighters and change residency requirements for their employees. The first phase of this hiring process was recently considered by the Big Sky Resort Area District resort tax board and the request to fund the initial addition of three battalion chiefs at $423,300 was not granted in full.
The full resort tax application included operational support maintained at $526,100, funds to replace a 20-year-old engine for $715,000, and the request to hire three more positions. The total came to $1,664,400, the largest ask for the 2017/2018 fiscal year.
The resort tax board allotted $1,520,430 to BSFD in a decision to supply funds for all but one battalion chief.
“Our request was a large thing to ask of [the board],” Fire Chief William Farhat said. “We still feel well supported, despite not getting the full funding.”
Originally, BSFD intended to seek funding for 10 of the desired 13 firefighter positions via a mill levy vote in November, hoping the resort tax board would approve funds for the other three. Now, Farhat says they will ask voters to approve hiring 11 battalion chiefs this fall.
“We need more people to do our job,” Farhat said, referring to Big Sky’s explosive growth and the results of a 2015 survey by Emergency Services Consulting International. In order to help with future planning, BSFD contracted ESCI in 2015 to provide a master plan for the delivery of emergency services to Big Sky. The resulting 141-page document was made available at the beginning of 2016, and incremental fulltime staffing additions was one of the recommendations.
BSFD received an average of about 500 calls each year in the late 2000s, which has increased to 727 calls for service in 2016. Seventy percent of the services BSFD provides are for tourists and people that do not live in Big Sky, and on top of that, the last three years have consistently been record-breaking in the number of annual incidents.
The ESCI survey found that there are not enough Big Sky firefighters available to respond to incidents 41 percent of the time. BSFD is responsible for an 80-square-mile district, but with a lack of other emergency services in the area, the department responds to calls within and a 400-square-mile area.
“Operationally, we’re kind of on an island … we don’t have a lot of neighbors to ask for assistance,” Farhat said. Aid from the next closest fire station, the all-volunteer Gallatin Gateway Rural Fire District Station 1, could take upwards of 50 minutes to respond, he added.
“We have to be more self-sufficient here.” Currently, BSFD employs 19 full-time staff, consisting of one office administrator, one administrative assistant, one fire chief, one deputy fire chief, three captains and 12 firefighters. With a small staff that services such a vast and varied area, it takes longer than 15 minutes to respond to over 20 percent of the fire district’s emergency incidents. The goal and industry standard is eight minutes, Farhat said.
“The question that needs to be answered is what are the service [delivery] needs of the community? … What’s considered to be an acceptable level of service for the community?” said Lane Wintermute, a senior associate with ESCI in a Jan. 21, 2016, presentation of ESCI’s findings. “The other question is what can the community afford, what are they willing to pay for? … It’s a matter of community expectations and affordability.”
The fire department is well-supported by resort tax…It enables the fire department to operate as well as they do,” he added. “It’s also a year-to-year allocation. The resort tax board can’t make a longer-term allocation. That makes it challenging for the fire department because they don’t know from one year to the next whether the funding for a particular initiative is going to change.”
During a June 5 Q&A for resort tax applicants, resort tax board member Kevin Germain expressed concern that fully funding three positions this year would lead to an expectation of continued resort tax support for those positions in future years.
“The resort tax board can’t obligate a subsequent resort tax board for funding [and] we’re looking at a request to fund three positions that would be $400,000-plus in perpetuity,” Germain said. “If this board wills it this year, [applicants] would like that it’s the will of the board next year and the will of the board after that.”
Big Sky firefighters work 48-hour shifts, followed by 96 hours off, and are available to cover emergencies every hour of the day. Six years ago, when Farhat took his position as fire chief, the department maintained that firefighters needed to be residents of Big Sky. Faced with hiring challenges in recent years, BSFD changed this policy in April so firefighters may now live anywhere in Gallatin or Madison counties, within one hour of the fire district boundary.
“The reality is that we can’t afford to pay our people enough to live here,” Farhat said. “It was very hard for us to go through and discuss this.” He said originally, the residency requirement was based on the idea that firefighters would have a better response time when they are off-duty because they live in the area they are being called to. But, due to limited cell phone reception in the area and generally active lifestyles, “even if [firefighters] are living in the Big Sky area, they may not be readily available anyway,” he said.
By opening up the residency requirement, Farhat expects to see better recruitment opportunities as more qualified individuals will be able to apply. “It’s very exciting for us to have that talented group of people to recruit from,” he said.