Martin Kidston

(MIssoula Current) Call volumes have nearly doubled over the last 15 years for the Missoula Fire Department, but its staffing levels haven't increased. And despite persistent requests to buy land for a new station in the booming Mullan area – and to fix a broken elevator at another station – the requests remain unfunded.

The budgeting season kicked off in earnest on Wednesday as various city departments began presenting their requests for the new fiscal year. Some requests are included in Mayor Jordan Hess' executive budget, but others are not, and it will be up to the City Council to add them, though doing so could quickly change the final tax scenario.

According to the city, the fire department's baseline needs have been included in the proposed budget, including more than $1.2 million for the Mobile Support Team, $6,000 in gloves for emergency responders and $5,000 for firefighter training.

But only a handful of the fire department's capital improvements have been slipped into this year's proposed budget.

“All of the baseline required elements are funded and the continuation of the Mobile Support Team is continuing to be funded on one-time dollars,” said Dale Bickell, the city's Chief Administrator Officer. “On the capital side, a lot of these are funded from various areas, or at least we think we have a path we're working on.”

Biggest need remains unfunded

The largest need sought by the fire department this year again includes a new fire station in the Mullan area and the firefighters and equipment to staff it. But the cost remains out of reach at nearly $6 million.

Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said it takes roughly 20 firefighters to tip up a new station. But the fire department has just 80 firefighters – a figure that has remained unchanged since 2008. That year, the city's population was estimated at around 64,000 people. It now stands at nearly 85,000.

“We've had this on our asks for the last eight years in an effort to be forward thinking and to find a suitable property west of Reserve within our annexed properties,” said Hughes. “That area is currently served by Station 4.”

Call volumes versus staffing at the Missoula Fire Department.
Call volumes versus staffing at the Missoula Fire Department.

Station 4 remains among the department's busiest and according to data presented Wednesday, the fire department's response times are slipping below national standards. Hughes described it as station reliability, or the ability of a pumper at any particular station to respond to an incident within its assigned district within six minutes.

Hughes said a perfect response is 100% and anything below that means a resource may not be available. The national standard for station reliability is around 90%. Currently, all but one station in Missoula is failing to meet that mark.

That could place lives and structures at risk, Hughes said.

“The only station in the last four years to meet the 90th percentile is Station 5,” said Hughes. “It's primarily a response time and our ability to meet our six-minute target of response within that primary district in order to meet the goals and standards of life-saving service, such as cardiac arrest, and to put out structure fires before we have flash-overs and larger damage extended within structures.”

Hughes said the department's call volume could becoming untenable without an investment into the equipment and personnel needed to meet the needs of a growing city. Bickell said a new station is a challenging thing to fund.

“The fire plan is calling for a new fire company, but that's one thing that's difficult to fund,” he said. “That's what's hard about funding fire, specifically. It's not incremental growth. You don't just add a couple of firefights. You bring on a 24-7 operation that comes with a building, equipment, and all of that comes on at the same time. We're at the point where we need to figure out the mechanism to add that fire company with all the new growth.”

Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said all but one of Missoula's five fire stations have slipped below the national standard response reliability.
Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said all but one of Missoula's five fire stations have slipped below the national 90% standard for response reliability.

While several members of City Council remain focused on funding the Mobile Support Team, others expressed concern regarding the safety of the wider public and the pressure the department is under to meet demand.

“Since I started on council, we've been hearing about the need for an additional fire station,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “A lot of the growth is happening west of Reserve. That area has grown exponentially. I'm concerned about our ability to provide services to that area and to every new resident, especially hearing that since 2008 we haven't added additional staff. We need to address this.”

Mobile Support Team

Several members of City Council expressed more interest in ensuring the mobile support team is funded beyond this year. The $1.2 million included in this year's budget to fund the resource comes from one-time federal funding socked away during the pandemic.

But that funding is likely to run out next year.

When the Mobile Support Team was launched in 2020, it responded to 92 calls, Hughes said. In 2021 that increased to 1,300 calls and, last year, it ballooned to more than 2,100 calls.

The program has been billed as a lifesaver and an essential service, and advocates note that it saves taxpayer's money down the road by diverting patients in crisis from jail or the emergency room. That also saves insurers money, but it doesn't free up funding for other fire department needs.

“There's no doubt that service has saved money,” said Assistant Fire Chief Brad Davis. “It's a community savings program per money for insurance companies, hospitals and jails, but as far as cold hard cash that we can spend on something else, not so much.”