Smith Valley to vote on fire department staffing levy

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SMITH VALLEY firefighters put out a grass fire along the U.S. 93 bypass near the Foys Lake roundabout. (Scott Shindledecker/Daily Inter Lake file)

The Smith Valley Fire District is once again asking voters to support a mill-levy request that would allow the local fire department to bring on additional paid staff and thus, increase emergency response times.

Registered voters in the district can expect ballots to be mailed out on Aug. 26. The deadline to vote is Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. and ballots must be mailed in or delivered in person to the Flathead County Election Department.

The department is seeking 48.91 mills in order to generate $450,000 annually to pay for the salaries of six full-time staff members who will be cross-trained to perform emergency medical services and firefighting. The increase would come out to approximately $66.02 per year on property that is valued at $100,000 or about $132.05 per on properties valued at $200,000. Rod Gillman, chairman of the district’s Board of Trustees, said it is important to note if the department finds they require less than the set amount, they can decrease the number of mills requested.

Smith Valley voters rejected a very similar mill-levy request last September that also would have raised $450,000 annually for the department, with 586 votes in favor and 848 votes against the levy.

Gillman said he believes last year many voters were unaware of how to vote and also didn’t have enough information about what the levy would support. He hopes this year will be different.

“We are trying everything to get the word out and are hoping that our constituents will agree this is a critical need for this community,” Gillman said.

The Smith Valley Fire Department is a “combination department” that provides fire protection and suppression, rescue, and emergency medical services to approximately 5,800 residents. The staff currently consists of 14 volunteers and two paid full-time firefighters and EMS providers who respond to a variety of 911 dispatch calls in the district.

The two paid staffers currently receive their salaries from the department’s operating budget. Gillman said if the mill levy passes, the money currently used to pay those two salaries will go to the department’s capital improvement fund for “a large backlog of much-needed upgrades” at the department. Gillman explained, “we are kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul right now.”

There are currently no staff members at the station on nights and weekends, because the two paid staff members work Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the time stretches when the paid staff aren’t working, volunteers respond from home instead — a process that leads to slower response times.

“The majority of volunteers respond from home. That means they have to stop what they’re doing, whether it’s eating dinner or sleeping and get to the station, put on their gear, and then drive to wherever the emergency is,” Smith Valley Fire Chief Amy Beick said. “At 69 square miles our district is very vast and those are precious minutes.”

Beick said when staff and volunteers are able to respond from the station, they are out the door to an emergency in about two minutes, but that response time is much longer when volunteers are responding from off-site locations.

According to Gillman, Advanced Life Support staff was present at the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week until last year’s mill levy failed.

A letter from the Board of Trustees on the department’s website also points to a gradual decrease in volunteers amid an increase in emergency calls — a troubling trend that can be countered with paid staff.

“We continue to rely heavily on our very dedicated volunteers, however, we have not been immune to the volunteer shortage impacting agencies both locally and nationally. Like most emergency response agencies in the Flathead, we have experienced an upward trend in the number and types of calls we have been dispatched over the past 10 years,” the board’s letter pointed out.

The increase in call volumes can be attributed to multiple factors, including community growth, an aging population and environmental conditions such as increased wildfire activities.

The board notes the staffing levy will “allow the men and women of SVFD to continue providing fast, quality, professional fire response and prehospital Advanced Life support patient care.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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