Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the Missoula Fire Department waits for November to see if voters will approve its request to raise $7 million annually through a new levy, it's also making plans to construct a new fire station and hire 20 new firefighters.

Both could take time, city officials said Wednesday after voting to place the levy on the November ballot.

“We need a sixth fire station. What we need more urgently is a new fire company,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “Standing up a fire company is going to take a period of time to recruit and train. There's also a lead time to a new fire station.”

Under the current plan and if the levy is approved, the fire department would first look to hire a new fire company. It would be placed into service and reside at one of the fire department's five existing stations.

The city would also look to purchase land in the Swxtpqyen neighborhood to build a new Station 6.

“We need to procure land and design the facility. Those things have a lead time,” Hess said. “Adding a sixth station provides a system-wide benefit. While it's geographic in the community, it provides a benefit to the whole system.”

Staffing the new fire company would also take time, Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said. When the company opened Station 5 more than a decade ago, it took around two years to transition the station and hire 16 firefighters.

This time, the department is looking to hire 20 firefighters over two phases in the course of a year.

“The thing we'd struggle with is qualified applicants. Everybody is battling for the same pool of candidates within the state of Montana,” said Hughes. “It doesn't mean we can't go outside our statewide consortium and tap into the other states in our region like Idaho and Washington. But it would be nice to pick up homegrown folks who already have housing available. That would be nearly impossible to find enough individuals who fit that bill.”

At least five other cities in Montana will place a public safety levy before voters this fall including Great Falls, which is seeking a $10.5 million levy. It also plans to hire 32 firefighters, Hughes said.

“When we have 150 qualified applicants in the pool, it really takes a bite out of that,” he said. “We haven't started the vetting process yet to identify those who are even qualified out of that 150 that make the grade that we've established as our benchmark for potential hires.”

The levy placed before Missoula voters would also provide permanent, reliable funding for the Mobile Support Team. It currently operates in two shifts spanning 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and some are calling for the hours to be expanded.

But like firefighters, recruiting talent to the team isn't easy, according to John Petroff, the operations manager with Missoula fire.

“A lot of it is the ability to hire people that are able work those type of hours. It's hard to get clinicians to work beyond their normal clinical-type jobs,” said Petroff. “We're working with the Crisis Intervention Team, trying to recruit people who want to do crisis work, because it's really tough work.”

Staffing aside, Petroff said the Mobile Support Team will need solid data before growing its hours.

“We are working on trying to build that out and expand hours, and that's part of this (levy) process,” said Petroff. “We're trying to get data collected to see how many calls are mental-health related after hours.”