On Sunday afternoon, all 25 Billings firefighters on duty from all seven fire stations were assisting in separate rescues on the Rims near the airport and several miles west near the Ironwood subdivision. Seven off-duty firefighters were called in, along with the fire chief. Firefighters needed their skills in technical rope rescue, their certification as emergency medical technicians to bring a bicyclist with a fractured leg safely off rugged terrain. They used all those skills and a licensed firefighter paramedic to bring a distraught and combative woman from a sandstone cliff where she appeared to be stuck.
"I'm really proud of our people," Rash said Monday morning. "They were working as a team. They were confident. They knew what they were doing."
Those simultaneous, successful rescues tested firefighter training, stretched Billings Fire Department resources and generated overtime costs.
On Monday night, the Billings City Council voted 6-5 to balance the fiscal 2020 city budget by cutting the BFD budget by nearly $1 million. The cut includes $250,000 for overtime pay.
The biggest cut deferred maintenance on fire stations. These are projects that are getting more expensive each year they are delayed. For example, the Terry Park station needs roof and soffit repair. Fire Station 7 on 54th Street West has drainage problems that cause water to run into the firetruck bays and form ice on the floor in cold weather. Overhead doors in all the stations are so old they need to be replaced to comply with current safety standards. Fuel stations at the fire stations are so old that repair parts are no longer available.
The fire and police departments account for 76 percent of the spending in city general fund departments. Because these departments rely mostly on taxes for revenue, increases in budgets depend on voter approval of property tax levies. Billings voters last approved a public safety levy increase in 2004 and rejected a repeal effort in 2006. That levy provides the same amount of money each year — with no increase — since it topped out nearly a decade ago.
"We are at minimum staffing," Rash told The Gazette recently when asked to discuss the department budget request.
The BFD has 36 highly trained technical rescue specialist, and all 110 firefighters are trained to support those rescues with help such as properly anchoring and tying off ropes. Last year, the department logged six high-angle rescues, three swift water rescues and responded to 629 motor vehicle crashes, including 23 that required mechanical extrication of victims from vehicles. In 2018, firefighters also removed 29 children trapped in locked vehicles and freed 12 people trapped in elevators. The department responded to 245 fires, 257 hazardous material incidents (including fuel spills), 993 building alarms and 6,727 emergency medical service calls.
All Billings firefighters are certified EMTs and 29 are licensed paramedics qualified to provide some advanced life support services. Both EMTs and paramedics are required to have ongoing training and periodic re-certification.
The council cut the BFD request to add one firefighter engineer to the Fire Prevention Bureau, which would have allowed the department to do inspections that now are being outsourced to non-local businesses. Rash said BFD would be able to provide better customer service by having people in Billings when there are questions about inspections or a need to be on location. Also, the inspections would generate revenue and were projected to cover the costs of the additional engineer within a couple of years.
The council also cut $50,000 for fire equipment replacement. That is another unsustainable reduction. The BFD, like other city departments, sets aside money every year to pay for major equipment replacement. Then when a fire engine is due for replacement, the money has already been saved up. Axing equipment from this year's budget effectively defers that expense to next year.
Similarly, the department cannot afford to fall behind on training. Skimping this year would mean doing more next year. Citizens should also be concerned that the firefighters we call upon to save us from all sorts of perils, accidents and disasters won't get all their recommended professional training. If we knew that we would need firefighters to tend our wounds and carry us off a steep sandstone slope, would we want them to skip their training first?
The cutback in budgeted overtime will force the department to cut back on staffing community events, such as fireworks displays, or to charge event organizers for the staff overtime, Rash said.
The fire and police budget cuts the City Council ordered for the year starting July 1 aren't sustainable. The council must lead the community to find a way to pay for the high quality of public safety services that Billings residents expect. The 2020 budget is finalized, work on the 2021 budget should begin now.