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Mont. fire chief asks council for $60K to fund long-term study of FD operations

Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Zach Osborne says the department is facing staffing challenges, deteriorating equipment and a fast-growing call volume


The fire chief hopes to learn what the department can do to keep up with the need for emergency services, as well the department’s practices and procedures.

Photo/Butte-Silver Bow FD

By Tracy Thornton
The Montana Standard, Butte

BUTTE, Mont. — Perhaps because of its larger population, you might think Billings would have Montana’s biggest fire district. Close, it’s the second largest at 91.5 square miles.

Montana’s largest fire district is Butte-Silver Bow, at 719 square miles. That’s been the case since the city and county consolidated 45 years ago.

With a look toward the future, it’s one of the reasons Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Zach Osborne is hoping the Council of Commissioners will approve a $60,000 long-term study of the entire Butte Fire Department, which includes two paid and nine volunteer departments.

Osborne gave a PowerPoint presentation Wednesday night to commissioners outlining the need for the study.

“This is a high-level, big-picture process that plans for a timeframe of 10 to 15 years,” said Osborne. “This study will give us a roadmap of recommendations we can follow.”

Right now, the fire department is dealing with deteriorating equipment, aging structures and a call volume that is growing substantially every year.

“We are understaffed,” said Osborne, “and running twice the amount of calls.”

Osborne has the numbers to back up that particular statistic.

In 2001, the fire department responded to just under 2,000 calls. Twenty years later, that number had more than doubled. By the end of this year, calls will number nearly 4,600, and 2023 is projected to be closer to 5,000 calls.

“Operationally, nothing has changed since the city and county consolidated back in 1977,” the fire chief said. “It should be noted that a major study has never been done for the B-SB Fire Department.”

Money for the study, which would be conducted by Emergency Services Consulting International, would come from the American Rescue Plan Act’s allocated funds.

According to a January 2022 news release, ARPA was added to the already appropriated Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CARES Act funds) to increase the support from the federal government to state and local governments to assist with the support and recovery efforts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Osborne said ESCI was chosen to do the study based on the quality of its work. The consulting firm is affiliated with the International Association of Fire Chiefs founded in 1976 and based in Oregon.

The firm will also study B-SB’s geographical area, along with its demographics.

The fire chief hopes ESCI will offer feedback on what B-SB needs to do to keep up with the need for emergency services, as well the department’s practices and procedures.

“Most funding is now tied to studies and that is the case here,” Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher said Wednesday night. “You have to have an updated plan in order to get grants.”

Osborne said the firm would meet beforehand with the fire advisory committee which would be comprised of Gallagher, Osborne, a person within the finance department, representatives from each volunteer fire department, and others.

The study, if approved, would take six months and Osborne assured commissioners ESCI would do a thorough job.

“A lot of the problems we are already aware of,” said Osborne, “but the study will give us the hard numbers that people really need to see.”

Commissioners decided to extend deliberations so they can review the request before giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

“I am open to any and all recommendations,” said Osborne.


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