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Homeowners worry about gap in fire service while study shows more rural stations necessary

| April 7, 2021 1:00 AM

Joe Raudabaugh has owned property at the end of Whitefish Lake for 20 years, but in more recent years it’s become increasingly clear that finding homeowners insurance for his property may one day be impossible.

The primary reason he and other property owners located in the rural areas surrounding Whitefish struggle with finding home insurance — the distance their homes are located from a fire station. Raudaubaugh’s home is 10 miles from the Whitefish Fire Department station off Baker Avenue in town and countless other homes are even farther away.

“I’m watching people around me in their 70s start to move out of their homes because they’re concerned about not having emergency response from an ambulance,” he said. “It’s more important to me to enjoy my view and not give that up and move out because of fear.”

A recent study of the greater Whitefish area found that about 1,400 structures are located greater than 5 miles away from a fire station. A related survey found that 17% of the respondents 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.

“What happens if coverage gets even more expensive or homes aren’t covered at all,” Raudabaugh points out. “This really could be a problem as more growth continues. For people who have mortgages on their homes they have to have insurance.”

Roughly a year ago Raudabaugh changed insurance carriers and his new insurance asked him to provide a fire response plan from the fire department. This connected him with Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page, and he says opened his eyes to the issue that more fire stations are needed throughout the rural areas around Whitefish.

The fire department currently serves the city and the Whitefish Fire Service Area, the rural area that includes about 55,000 acres outside of city limits, and a portion of the Flathead County Fire Service Area that is not covered by another fire district.

Page knew from his own experience that being located near a fire station not only offers better response time, but can also provide a more favorable property insurance rate. He also knew that some vast areas north and west of Whitefish are lacking coverage, but placing fire stations without analyzing the data wouldn’t make sense.

“I knew that it could save a lot of people money in insurance rates,” he said. “The goal needed to be to find out if it would be financially appealing to people to build satellite fire stations and would the insurance savings they would get cover the cost of that.”

To turn that anecdotal evidence into numbers, Raudaubaugh, who is a retired career management consultant, drew on his personal connection to Carnegie Mellon University where he founded the Kearney’s Student Lab Program. The lab brings in real-life projects with clients who have issues or needs and data, and then connects them with a team of graduate business school students assisted by professionals and faculty who take the information to create a full data analysis at no cost.

Last year the Whitefish Fire Department, along with a team of community members who provided assistance, engaged the lab program to identify potential locations for satellite fire stations for Whitefish and to examine how adding fire stations would affect insurance rates.

In the Whitefish fire service area, the study found about 6,000 structures are located within 5 miles of the station while about 1,400 are located greater than 5 miles from the station. The insurance industry typically uses 5 road miles from a station as the distance when determining adequate fire protection.

Using GIS data, the team looked at the location of the homes in the greater Whitefish area and their distance from current fire stations. Then those homes were grouped to create zones that would be served from potential new fire stations.

The study found that by constructing nine fire stations that would serve 94% of the current structures in the fire area and also likely result in insurance savings for those structures.

“I was surprised with the results,” Page said. “I knew that there were areas north and west of Whitefish that needed stations because of development that had occurred, but I thought we needed two to three at the most.”

The accompanying survey also found strong support for new fire stations with about 64% saying they would be willing to pay more taxes for the construction of a new fire station if it lowers their insurance premium. And 68% of respondents said they would support new fire stations even if they did not see personal benefit.

After identifying the structures and current fire coverage, the team then determined the factors affecting insurance premiums and calculated the potential cost implications for adding satellite stations.

By examining insurance rates and home values, the study found that by constructing new fire stations it would save an average of $884 per structure in insurance costs — or just the cost savings of being within 5 miles of a fire station.

When factoring in the cost of constructing and operating a fire hall in those areas, homeowners could be looking at savings of between $230 and almost $400 depending on the type of fire hall constructed.

The study analyzed the costs for a rural fire station, a larger sized volunteer station, a resident station with living quarters and finally a staffed fire station. The annual operating cost, including the cost for initial construction and vehicles, for a rural station would be about $140,000, a volunteer station about $160,00, a resident station was about $185,000 and a staffed station would be about $785,000.

What the study found was three of the four station options would likely save homeowners money. The rural, volunteer and resident stations offered on average savings of up to $400 from reduced rates in insurance premiums. However, the staffed station would cost about $1,880 more to homeowners.

Pages says the study shows that it pencils out to construct satellite fire stations because the cost of the stations is less for a homeowner than increased insurance costs that come from being located farther from a saation.

“I look at the study as a way to help solve some of the problems,” he said. “And I’d like to create a residential program that would build bedrooms in the stations where college students could live for free while working for the fire department.”

“Whitefish has become a tourist and retirement community with second homeowners or retirees and that means our pool of volunteers has dried up,” he added. “A resident program works in a lot of places.”

Funding for the stations could come from two main options, either spreading out the cost for all taxpayers in the city and rural fire areas, or spreading the cost out amongst those near the fire halls such as through a special improvement district, the study notes.

Pages says that a special improvement district could be a viable option for funding because it would ask homeowners to pay for the satellite fire station nearest them rather than all taxpayers to share the cost of all the stations.

The study also examined how best to construct the fire stations — all at once or individually. Based on population and growth estimates the optimal path would be to construct six new stations initially and then the other stations in the remaining area as growth continues.

Greg Knuffke, who owns Tamarack Insurance of Kalispell and one of those who assisted with the study, says homes in rural areas are increasingly facing an uphill battle with obtaining insurance because of their location.

“We know in the last several years with wildfires in California, insurance companies are becoming even more sensitive to insuring houses in forested areas,” he said. “There’s not a lot of appetite to insure houses that are more than 5 miles away from the fire station and those that are in a forested area.”

A home with a value of $1 million located in Star Meadows would cost $9,000 to obtain homeowners insurance, while a comparable home close to the fire station would pay about $1,200 for insurance, Knuffke notes as an example of the cost differences when it comes to insurance.

A GIS analysis, created by homeowners, of the distribution of fire stations in the Whitefish rural area, the area included in the Carnegie Mellon project, versus the rest of Flathead County shows a discrepancy between the two geographic areas.

The rural Whitefish area comprises 8,302 parcels with buildings of value totaling $3.3 billion. There are currently four fire stations in the area, which translates to supporting $838.5 million in building value per station.

The rest of the private land in Flathead County, outside of the Whitefish study area, comprises 37,025 parcels with buildings of value totaling $9.4 billion. The 34 fire stations in that area support an average of $278 million in building value per station.

Raudabaugh said the four fire stations for the greater Whitefish area are protecting buildings with values that are 2.5 to 3.6 times the value of the properties on the balance of the private lands in the county. The four fire stations include the city fire station, the rural station at Whitefish Stage and Hodgson Road, the Olney station and the Big Mountain station.

“The rest of Flathead County is fundamentally blanketed with fire stations,” Raudabaugh said. “There aren’t nearly as many homes there that aren’t covered by fire stations.”

When Somers added another fire station not so long ago, Knuffke says, that made insuring homes that previously struggled with getting insurance no longer have that issue.

“The problem now is only in the Whitefish area,” he said.

Raudabaugh says the results of the study created the geographic zones for potential new fire stations providing the ability to go to property owners to determine support to construct a fire station that would serve their home. The key, he says, comes from educating the community about the importance and benefits of constructing new fire stations.

“This is an important piece of work,” he says about the study. “And there is much to be done to remediate the many years of underinvestment in public safety for the rapidly growing surrounding community of greater Whitefish.”

A group of concerned property owners in the Whitefish Fire Service Area have begun pushing for greater engagement from the rural fire board to take an active role in the future of fire service in the rural area noting the discrepancy between the number of stations around Whitefish and the rest of rural Flathead County.

“The community that this board is obligated to support needs leadership to close the massive resource gap that has accumulated as development has far outstripped reinvestment in fire emergency response capabilities,” the homeowners said in a March 31 letter to the editor in the Pilot addressed to the rural board.

In terms of the city’s role, the fire department recently hired a consultant to create a long-term master plan for the fire that will assess the current and future service demands of the department for the city and the rural area.

Page says the Carnegie Mellon study combined with the master plan should provide solutions for how to move forward, but it will still require engagement from property owners.

“People will have to take a realistic look at what kind of protection they want and what they want to pay for it,” he said. “We can set out if this is the level of service you want, then this is what it costs.”

To view presentations on the Student Lab Program study, visit

https://www.cityofwhitefish.org/207/Fire-Ambulance