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Mont. city will hire full-time firefighters despite not securing SAFER grant

Columbia Falls will pay for two of the firefighters through the city’s 3% resort tax

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By Chris Peterson
Hungry Horse News, Columbia Falls, Mont.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. — Federal grant or not, the City of Columbia Falls will go ahead and hire three full-time firefighters later this month.

The historic move will create a paid fire department force with four total firefighters, including chief Karl Weeks.

Weeks said Monday the city was notified last week it didn’t get a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing For Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

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If the city had received the grant, it would have paid for the three firefighters for three years, about $900,000 total.

But now that it hasn’t received the grant, it will go ahead and pay for two of the firefighters through the city’s 3% resort tax and the rural fire district will pay for the third firefighter.

If the city had received the SAFER grant, it would have paid the firefighters for the first three years from that fund, then used the resort tax for equipment and other fire department expenses.

The resort tax is designed to pay for emergency services, as the city has seen an increasing volume of emergency calls, particularly during the summer months when traffic is at its highest.

The department also has a robust volunteer force as well.

The city council last week approved changes in the employee handbook to accommodate the firefighters, allowing for overtime if the a firefighter is called out after shift on an emergency.

Firefighters called out beyond their normal shifts would be paid a minimum of three hours at 1.5 times the hourly rate, under the changes.

That’s similar to a collective bargaining agreement, city manager Susan Nicosia told council.

Firefighters will already work extended work weeks, with four eight hour days and 12 hour days on Wednesday for training.

The new firefighters will be sworn in officially at the next council meeting.

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