It's time for the Billings Fire Department to plan to grow with the city, according to a consultant's report released this week.
The report by Emergency Services Consulting Inc. was presented to the City Council Tuesday. The most drastic recommendation calls for moving as many as three fire stations and adding two or three new stations.
Other changes suggested in the report include training to increase firefighters' ability to provide emergency medical services and to improve fire prevention by encouraging new construction to include sprinkler systems. The report also suggested using technology, including improved data collection — such as how responses are timed and tapping Geographic Information Systems technology — and adding computers to fire trucks.
Joe Parrott, the consulting firm's senior vice president, said the station changes would come as development occurs. He envisions adding a station on Highway 3, near Rehberg Estates, in about three years and the possibility of moving stations 2, 4 and 5 — the South Side, Terry Park and 24th Street West facilities — in the next decade. When residential and commercial growth require it, stations could be added on the far West End of Billings, he said.
Fire Chief Marv Jochems said the department, which is staffed at the same level it was in the 1970s, is already taking "incremental steps" to address Billings' growth and the demand for services farther from existing stations. Jochems thinks it would be a few years before any facilities changes are made.
"(The consultant) did not recommend this for tomorrow, and I do not believe this needs to be done tomorrow," Jochems said. "We don't have any immediate 'We're going to run out and do this' plan."
The department is already addressing some issues. Within a few weeks the department will start inputting call data. Jochems said that would allow the Fire Department, "with a keystroke," to track how response times increase as annexation and development expands. In turn, that would point to when and where station changes are required.
Also, Jochems wants to develop a committee that includes city representatives and people from the insurance and sprinkler industries to develop an education program on sprinkler systems, their affordability and cost-return through insurance savings and creating a safer environment for homes, businesses and firefighters. City utility incentives to owners may be possible, he said.
The department has made budget requests to increase emergency medical training for firefighters and for overtime money to possibly add additional crews during peak demand times, he said.
The report showed that the Downtown and South side stations are so busy they are "approaching capacity." Because most calls come in between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and many are medical calls, Jochems would like to add over-time shifts during those times to keep adequate service. Peak times will expand with demand, he said.
"When we get to the point we need an extra station with a crew, there's not a $5 million surprise," Jochems said. "We've worked our way through it."
There are changes that the consultant suggested that may not be possible, such as the city eliminating bottlenecks during peak traffic times on Main Street and 24th Street West or moving training facilities from the airport to a more central location.
Another unlikely change is moving a neighborhood fire station, like Terry Park. Councilwoman Shirley McDermott said if it were moved within the consultant's time frame, the facility probably wouldn't yet be paid for. Jochems said it's a "monumental task" to move a station, and he doesn't know for sure that it would be moved. Yet, Station No. 6 was moved in 1987 from Lake Elmo Drive to Wicks Lane with no public outcry. And, he said, Station No. 5 isn't really a neighborhood station and moving it might not be such a "political mountain."
Jochems said he is pleased with the report, partially because it is the first such document that the department has had in about 35 years and, more so, because the consultant trained city staff on how to continue increasing the data. The department's computer programs are actually newer than the consultant's, Jochems said. The city paid about $46,000 to have the nearly 90-page report compiled.
Jochems said the report didn't contain any surprises for fire administrators. Actually, he said, the department had most of the data provided in the report, the staff just didn't have the ability to format it in the styles the consultants did. The report characterizes the Billings Fire Department as well-managed with equipment that is in good, or very good, condition and where the employees are enthusiastic about their work.
Parrott, the consultant, met with the City Council earlier this year and determined that city leaders were pleased with the current level of service and were interested in finding low-cost ways to improve that service, specifically through emergency medical service.
Response times show that fire crews overwhelmingly arrive at calls before the ambulance service, the private company American Medical Response. Part of the reason is that the six fire stations allow quicker response than AMR's ambulances, which roam the city between calls.
Jochems said he has talked with AMR representatives, and they would like to form a partnership in which the city would make a one-time purchase of medical inventory. When firefighters used that inventory, such as saline solution, they would replace it at the scene from the ambulance, Jochems said. AMR Director of Operations Allen Bergemann was in meetings Wednesday and not available for comment.
Another section of the report addresses the possibility of changing fire crews' work schedules. Parrott told the council firefighter schedules were only a discussion item in the report. Jochems said scheduling is a labor issue that needs to be negotiated by the Fire Department's union, the International Association of Firefighters, Local 521.
"There are other work schedules that with less firefighters you could put more firefighters on the street every day," Jochems said.
The report outlines how the department could shift from a 43.5-hour week to a work week of 50 hours or more. The change could save money because labor costs such as insurance and other benefits would be reduced.