By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor
BIG SKY – At 7:35 p.m. on August 8, 2012 the Big Sky Fire Department received a call for an overturned vehicle on Highway 191, north of the Lone Mountain Trail junction, that was spilling gas near the Gallatin River.
All three on-duty firefighters responded to the hazardous materials spill, as did Fire Chief William Farhat, who was off-duty, leaving no one at the station to field emergency calls.
Simultaneously, Farhat, who personally responds to 37 percent of all calls in the Big Sky area, received an alert on his pager about victims suffering from a carbon monoxide leak. He left the Gallatin Canyon accident to respond to the triage scene in Big Sky, solo.
Multiple-event instances happen constantly, according to Farhat, who took over as fire chief in November 2011. Bozeman Deaconess is the closest medical center, some 50 miles from Big Sky, and Farhat was the lone incident responder for that call.
“I just started treating patients,” he said. “Luckily, no one had to go to the hospital.”
Home to multiple ski resorts, Big Sky receives significant amounts of snow in winter and is prone to forest fires in summer, leading to potential emergency situations. Farhat feels his department should have ample resources at its disposal to keep the area safe.
“We’re busy twelve months out of the year,” he said.
The fire department has 10 personnel on staff and with limited funding there are two or three firefighters on duty at any given time. It’s an unsafe number, Farhat says, and one that falls short of complying with federal requirements laid-out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In addition to paid staff, the department has nine volunteers, currently, with eight more in training. This is certainly helpful, Farhat said, but only when they are able to respond. The average volunteer response rate is 6 percent of the annual call volume.
“Volunteers are important,” he said. “But they are not able to give [the department] what we need.” This is especially true when two calls come in at once, and this limited volunteer resource is busy and can’t respond.
These instances, in which multiple emergency events require his crew to be in two or more places at once, are depleting, Farhat says, and unsustainable. He is proposing an 11.14 mill tax increase to protect area residents.
The mill levy refers to the taxable value of a home, he said, and should not be confused with the market value of the property.
For example, if a residential home has a market value of $600,000, its taxable value is $15,780. An 11.14 mill levy increase would raise the homeowner’s annual tax by about $175, which equals approximately $15 per month.
Non-resident homeowners would account for more than 70 percent of these taxes, he added.
The money collected from this tax increase, totaling $485,000, would allow Farhat to hire five more firefighter/EMTs or paramedics to comply with OSHA standards, which require four personnel on-shift at any given time.
This increase in staff would allow the department to handle multi-incident scenarios in an area that has limited help from outside emergency resources.
If an incident such as a forest fire, multi-vehicle accident or structure fire occurs in the Big Sky area, mutual-aid resources are finite. The Yellowstone Club Fire Department is the closest backup at 20-minutes away and has a paramedic and ambulance available for assistance.
If the YCFD is on a call, Farhat said, help has to come from Gallatin Gateway, 45 minutes from Big Sky.
Even then, Highway 191 is the only road connecting Big Sky to Bozeman.
On Dec. 12, a tractor-trailer jackknifed on 191 and began spilling fifty gallons of diesel fuel onto the road near the river. The truck came to rest perpendicular to the highway, blocking traffic and preventing additional resources from reaching the accident for nearly two-and-a-half hours.
“This was actually one of the simpler accidents we’ve had [in Gallatin Canyon],” said Farhat, who recalled notifying dispatch to get the word to media entities soon after he learned the road was blocked. He made sure the driver wasn’t injured, then Farhat and his crew dealt with the diesel leak.
But, he added, nothing is ever simple in the canyon. With limited to non-existent cell phone service, a more complex situation, one with injuries, would drive up that two-and-a-half-hour timeframe.
“Imagine if we had a medical call at the same time in Big Sky,” Farhat said. “If the helicopter isn’t available there’s no way to get them to the hospital [in Bozeman] without going all the way through West Yellowstone. It’s always a big issue for us.”
When firefighters transport a patient from Big Sky to the hospital in Bozeman, it can take them out of the rotation for hours, leaving minimal staff to respond to additional medical emergencies.
Chief Farhat had to leave a 3:30 p.m. interview with the Big Sky Weekly on Dec. 14 after 20 minutes, when he received a call to assist with a ski-injury transport to Bozeman Deaconess.
“I was gone until 9 [p.m.],” he said in a follow-up interview. “It’s a long time to drive to get to the hospital, turn around and be ready for the next [incident].”
Farhat spoke to the Resort Tax Board about his concerns for Big Sky residents earlier this year, and took these issues to other community members about a month ago. His tax proposal received strong community support in a survey he sent out in October, garnering an 86 percent approval rating.
“I want to be open and honest [with people],” he said. “And I want to get the information out there.”
He hopes the rest of the community will follow suit.
“We haven’t had a tragedy [related to an inability to respond] in Big Sky yet,” Farhat said. “We’re trying to avoid that. But if I was to wait until a tragedy occurred [to bring awareness], shame on me.”
For volunteer information with the Big Sky Fire Department, visit bigskyfire.org or call (406) 995-2100. Chief Farhat will also be presenting information about the department and his proposed tax levy at the Big Sky town hall meetings on Jan. 14 and Feb. 11.