Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing staffing issues and delays in response times, the Missoula Firefighters Union is asking the city to place a levy on the November ballot to fund the department's needs.

Andrew Drobeck, the president of the local fire union, said the Missoula Fire Department has not seen an increase in operations since 2008. But over the last 16 years, call volumes have increased as the city's population has grown and spread further west.

“Population growth in Missoula is estimated at 17% since 2008,” said Drobeck. “Much of that growth is due to infill as well as geographical boundary growth, both of which result in an increase to call volume and response time.”

In each of the past several years, fire officials have asked the city to consider a new fire station in the Sxwtpqyen area where hundreds of new housing units have been build and thousands more are planned.

But the city hasn't funded the request and, last year, fire officials cautioned members of City Council during budgeting that the department's response times were beginning to lag. At the time, then Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said “We've had this on our ask list for the last eight years.”

A new station would require the city to ramp up a new fire company to staff the station – something that city officials said is difficult to fund. But weeks after the department's budget presentation last year, the City Council agreed to put a levy request on the ballot to raise roughly 40 mills, or around $7 million annually.

The funding would pay for the new fire company, a new station, funding the Mobile Support Team, and cover equipment costs over time. However, a month later, the city pulled the levy from the ballot citing taxpayer concerns.

Still, the needs haven't gone away.

“Firefighters are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the public with adequate response and currently do not meet national standards in a variety of areas,” said Drobeck. “The problem continues to escolate as call volume, population, and city expansion remain on the rise.”

According to the department, call volumes since 2008 have grown from roughly 6,000 to 12,000 annually. The number of multiple calls has also grown and now represent around 40% of the department's responses.

As a result, response times have slipped and are now 2 minutes behind natnional standards.

“Simultaneous emergencies occur on 40% of calls with the city,” said Drobeck. “This often results in a deterioration of response times as fire units from a further distance must leave their respective service area to ensure all calls for service are filled.”

City officials said they welcomed the fire union's continued support of a ballot measure. They said the levy was pulled from the ballot last year over uncertainty of the tax climate, especially after the state's reappraisal of property and the resulting tax increases.

But the need for funding hasn't gone away, and Mayor Andrea Davis' office is now working on a proposal expected out later this month.

“Growth is not paying for itself, and this would be part of the solution,” said Davis. “We hope the voters will recognize the needs and support our firefighters. Their work is critical to the health and safety of Missoula’s residents and visitors.”

City officials said they don't have enough room in the general fund to meet the department's needs. Funding a new fire company is beyond the city's reach.

“The city’s administration and staff do not discuss items they are bringing to the City Council before they bring them, out of respect for the council,” said city spokeswoman Ginny Merriam. “Voters now know what their tax bills are and can make informed financial decisions.”