Study looks at improving fire service with satellite stations

by HEIDI DESCH
Editor | November 18, 2020 1:00 AM

About 1,400 homes or businesses in the greater Whitefish area are located farther than 5 road miles from the Whitefish Fire Department, according to preliminary results from a study, and would likely benefit from having a satellite fire station constructed nearby.

Fire Chief Joe Page notes that the insurance industry typically uses 5 road miles from a fire station as the distance when determining adequate fire protection and being located near a fire station also offers better response time.

“We want to provide an equatable level of service to as many people in our response area as possible,” Page said. “One of the key components of providing adequate fire service is response time. Our goal is to find the optimal locations for satellite fire stations to serve the most people possible.”

In the Whitefish fire service area, about 6,000 structures are located within 5 miles of the station. The fire department currently serves inside the city limits and the Whitefish Fire Service Area, the rural area immediately outside the city limits, and a portion of the Flathead County Fire Service Area that is not covered by another fire district.

In an effort to improve emergency services, the Whitefish Fire Department this fall began working on a study designed to determine how many and where satellite fire stations should be located. The study is being conducted with the assistance of the Kearney’s Student Lab program at Carnegie Mellon University.

During a presentation last week, students presented their initial findings from research and a survey of homeowners. A final report is expected in December.

The team first identified all the structures and current fire coverage in the area, and next they plan to determine the factors affecting insurance premiums and calculate the potential cost implications for adding satellite stations and the optimal locations for those stations. Finally, they are expected to provide a recommendation that would maximize the fire coverage area while making the most economic sense.

Preliminary results show that likely nine satellite fire stations spread out around Whitefish could effectively serve 85% of the 1,400 homes and businesses that are currently outside the 5 mile radius of the fire station.

Jaece Stokes, one of the students involved in the project, said the study will continue to look more in-depth at geographically where the best place to locate stations would be.

“We want to take a data driven approach to group the structures in a meaningful way,” he said. “We want to find the geographic center of the groups of structures to find the best location for the stations.”

As part of the study, a survey was released last month asking Whitefish homeowners to answer questions regarding their insurance coverage. There were more than 200 responses to the survey.

Of the respondents, the survey found that 17.5% have had their homeowner’s insurance coverage refused in the past and that insurance rates are 20% higher for those who are outside of 5 road miles to the nearest fire station.

The analysis, based upon the response from the surveys, does show a potential for about $550 in average annual insurance savings for those homes located within 5 miles of a fire station. The survey found that those within 5 miles currently pay about $3,200 on average annually for insurance, while those located outside the 5 miles pay about $3,700.

The survey found that of those who responded, 68% said they support additional fire stations even if they didn’t see a personal benefit.

Page has said that one of the goals of the study is to determine if by creating a rural improvement district to raise money for a new fire station that it would actually save homeowners money because their insurance costs would decrease.

The Whitefish Fire Department applied to be accepted by the student program, which is conducting the analysis for free.