Lane Wintermute addresses the BSFD board and explains findings from the Long Range Master Plan. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Positive findings

BSFD earns a good report card in recent study

Lane Wintermute, senior associate with Emergency Services Consulting International guided the Big Sky Fire District (BSFD) board through the Long Range Master Plan Update on Sept. 25. The study assesses and projects up to 2025. 

 “There’s been a lot of change in this community,” he said. 

 Noting that he has assessed fire departments across the nation, he said Big Sky has a very sound, well managed fire department. 

 The reason for the review/update is serving “really as a report card” he said and also spoke earlier to the fact that the fire department has accomplished so many goals established in the 2016 study, “an accomplishment”.

 The study includes a detailed financial analysis, revenue and expenditures, which “should be remaining relatively close together during our review.” 

 Researchers asked the fire chief and staff to discuss the greatest challenges, which they outlined as offering fire and EMS services in a high risk environment  with property and human safety in jeopardy. 

 Staffing and training concerns have been addressed, but the study does note the remaining need for “some sort of training facility.” 

 One of the biggest factors of the evaluation, he said, is service delivery analysis. There has been a steady increase in incidents requiring the help of the fire department, with over 60% being the need for EMS. 

 Another concern is the 4% increase in call concurrence from 2017 to 2018 – meaning two overlapping incidents. 

 “You need to watch this trend. If the number of concurrent calls is starting to increase, that is an indicator that you are understaffed,” he said. 

 Eighty percent of the time, response is 14 minutes or less to incidents. That trend going down, as the study notes, that is “really positive.” 

 The study also did a future system demand projection. 

 “The bottom line, I think you are going to see some population growth. I don’t think that is a surprise to you,” he said. According to Wintermute, if the growth trend from 2012 to 2016 remains steady, the population of Big Sky will hover around just under 6,000 – a 95% increase from 2012. With that population growth, the service demand is set to increase dramatically ad is already increasing much faster than in 2015. 

 “We just want to make sure that you make logical, scientific decisions as you move forward,” he said regarding addressing the growth and service time and the idea of a future fire station in the Spanish Peaks vicinity.

Spanish Peaks is a “particularly concerning area for BSFD,” Chief Farhat noted in later conversation. The Spanish Peaks Montage project, he provided as an example, is by itself the largest private structure in Montana. 

“Altogether, they pose a greater responsibility as well as operational challenges for BSFD,” he said. “As mentioned during the presentation, there's a two pronged approach to when a station is needed - the volume of incidents that are anticipated and the need for properties to be within 5 road miles of a fire station to reap the property insurance underwriting benefit. As the Montage and other areas are completed, incident numbers will certainly rise as well.” 

The need is there, Chief Farhat said, but the funding is the crux. 

“While there is future property tax growth that would come from the properties there as they are developed and added to the tax rolls, it would only be enough to fund station staffing, and even that would be over time and not right away,” he said. “Our Board of Trustees has asked the Madison County Commission to tie the fire station's construction to the renewal of Spanish Peaks' Overall Development Plan, which permits phases of future growth, but that discussion has been going on for over a year without a resolution.” 

 Board member Carol Collins noted that there has been discussion of water and sewer in the community and asked if that would impact recommendations from the study. The scarcity of water near her home in the canyon, for example. 

 “You can’t put a fire hydrant on every street corner,” Wintermute said, but the study did research adding an  additional fire station in the canyon area – growth will drive that need. 

The greatest surprises from the study for BSFD were positive. 

 “The update surprised me as to how much we had accomplished as even I had lost track of that.  There is still much to be done as the community continues to evolve, but we are in a far better place to address that now than in 2016,” he said. 

BSFD has been hard at work to address areas of improvement and opportunities identified in 2016, he said. 

“I'm proud of everyone's efforts as it took each person to make this happen and, as you saw, BSFD's staff accomplished a great deal in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

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