Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As the city asks voters in Missoula to consider passing a fire levy this spring to help the Missoula Fire Department keep up with growth, it's also reminding residents that doing so may be tied to their insurance premiums.

Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes over the last two years has warned City Council that the department's response time to emergencies, including structure fires, was beginning to lag.

As it stands, he said, current response times are roughly two minutes slower than what's called for by the National Fire Protection Association.

Without additional funding to ramp up a new fire company, a new station, the equipment it requires and other needs, the department's response times will likely get worse, Hughes said.

“This is where we're failing,” Hughes said. “We're not living up to the standards and best practices set by the National Fire Protection Association.”

Hughes said the standardized ISO rating used by insurance companies serves a benchmark for the premiums residents pay on their homes. The rating runs from one through 10 with one being the best and 10 being the worst.

The figure is based in part on local fire protection including response times, water supply and the local 911 service. Currently, Hughes said Missoula sits at three.

“We're pretty solid in a three,” he said. “But if we continue to see a downturn in our response times and the staffing that's relative to respond to a structure fire with an effective firefighting force, that number has the potential of backsliding, which would increase your insurance premiums.”

Hughes said the department could improve the rating to two with additional staffing. An improved score has the potential lower local insurance costs.

“If we get worse in our rating, we might expect our home insurance prices to go up,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “If we get better in our rating, we might expect them to go down. As we're looking at the economics of this, it's an important thing to remember.”

While placing the fire levy before voters has unanimous approval from City Council, some council members have argued that the city has been spending too much on wants and not enough on its needs. Some members of the public have also questioned some recent choices made by the city, including its decision to annex large areas west of Reserve Street.

Doing so required the city in 2019 to increase staffing on the Missoula Police Department and dedicate half of the new officers to patrol a newly annexed area. The fire department is also serving the newly annexed area and thousands of new residential units, but it hasn't added any staffing.

“The fire chief's area to cover has expanded,” said resident Robert Dunlap. “It seems like every time you annex a piece of property, the taxes it generates does not come close to the costs it brings to the city. Maybe it's time we let the people across the street think about their fire department, their police protection and their water problems.”