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Fire board needs to engage property owners to construct fire stations

| March 31, 2021 1:00 AM

Editor’s Note: This letter was addressed to the candidates running for the Whitefish Fire Service Area board. Candidates who have filed for the May 5 election are Calvin Dyck, James Dyon, George Losleben, David Mangold, Ed McGrew and Michael Zorn.

The community that the Whitefish Fire Service Area 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 negligence of this delayed or denied reinvestment became obvious last spring when the existing board sent out letters to the community explaining their focus on boosting our sole station by redirecting our modest fees from securing ongoing support from the city rather than investing in more stations in the district.

Yes, we need more career/professional firefighters but for a very long time we have needed many more fire stations to stage equipment and organize volunteers closer to more structures in the district, enable property owners better access to more insurance carriers, deliver substantial insurance savings to the 1,400 plus property owners that are currently beyond five miles from a responding station and provide station locations that can house ambulances and in time resident EMTs as career staffing becomes affordable. The “under-stationed” gap in the district is six to 10 fire stations, we need to address this crisis.

The northwest corner of Flathead County has just four fire stations. The four include: The Whitefish Fire Service Area's station at the corner of Whitefish Stage and Hodgson roads, Olney’s station, Big Mountain’s station and the city station. These four stations provide fire response support coverage to buildings with tax record valuations totaling $3.3 billion across 8,302 parcels or $838 million per station. Most of this geography is the Whitefish Fire Service Area. The balance of private lands in Flathead County has 34 fire stations supporting 37,025 parcels with buildings of value totaling $9.4 billion. The 34 fire stations support an average of $278 million in building value per station. If northwest county had the same burden per station that the balance of the rest of the county currently has, then it should have 12 stations not four.

The recently completed study by Carnegie Mellon University graduate students used advanced GIS analytical tools and financial modeling to size and structure the necessary fire station additions to meet insurance industry standards in northwest Flathead County. That study demonstrated that up to nine new stations would be required to bring fire stations to within five miles for the 1,400 structures that are now inadequately addressed. The project also demonstrated that six or more of the stations could be funded today from property owner insurance savings generated from the improved network footprint that the new stations would support. The balance of the needed stations would be fundable within a few years as growth drives up structure density for those locations.

Expectations for the board:

Refocus the board’s agenda and priorities to serving the needs of the entire district meaning “closing the fire station network gap.”

Collaborate with the City of Whitefish, Big Mountain and Olney districts to create a seamless network capability delivering ISO rating five or better performance standards to the entirety of the geography efficiently.

Initiate public engagement in 2021-22 to determine which property owners in the fire service area would like to opt in based upon the zones, as defined by the Carnegie Mellon project, for a fire station which would also mean that they would be accepting the ongoing tax/fee increment associated with that commitment.

Property owners within the Whitefish Fire Service Area: Bill Adams,Tom Bandy, Melissa Best, Katie Callahan, Pat Carloss, Nick and Karen Chickering, Chuck and Angela Fenton, Michael Frost, Hal Nolde, Zak Kearns, Wayne Kasworm, Bob and Denise Kuhl, Ed Lieser, Mark Mance, Brian and Allison Massey, Sharon Morrison, Phil and Tawnie Norman, Nathan and Holly Purdy, Tom and Teresa Quinn, Joe and Beverly Raudabaugh, Bob Reich, Brent Stratton, Jamie and Janna Shennan, DeWayne Sweet, Matt Trebesch, David Trousdale, John VanDenBurgh, Debe Vanderlip, Randy and Tameria Wheeler and Debra Wolf.