Car fire

Billings police and fire investigate a Chevy Blazer that burned in the parking lot of the IHOP restaurant on King Avenue West at 4 a.m. on Sept. 13.

When talk turns to public safety in Billings, most discussion has been about our police department. Last Monday night, the City Council devoted several hours to learning about the city's public safety system, which also includes Billings Fire Department, 911 communications center, Municipal Court, Code Enforcement, city prosecutors and animal control.

These public services are interconnected and must work smoothly together. For example, if police issue more citations (or the city hires more cops) the workload would increase for prosecutors, the municipal judge and court clerks. Stepped up code enforcement for civil infractions would also boost demands on the court.

On Monday night, the council learned that no prosecuting attorneys have been added since 2007, although Billings Municipal Court caseloads increased 55% between 2007 and 2017.

The council also was informed that Billings Fire Department calls for service have increased more than 50% since 2012.

More calls for help

The BFD is responsible for emergency medical calls, rescuing people trapped in all sorts of perils, overseeing the 911 communications center that serves all of Yellowstone County, investigating fires, conducting fire prevention inspections and education. The BFD handles calls within the city and in the Billings Urban Fire Service Area outside the city limits through a contract with Yellowstone County.

The city of Billings is home to about 114,000 people spread over 44 square miles. An additional 10,600 people live in the BUFSA, which covers 48 square miles.

An independent consultant who studied BFD last year recommended two new fire stations, one in the Heights near Hilltop Road and Topaz Avenue, the other on the West End near Neibauer Road and 48th Street West. With the addition of those stations and about 30 firefighters to staff them, all the homes within the city limits would be within five miles of a fire station — except for Briarwood south of the Yellowstone River and Rehberg Ranch north of Highway 3.

The five-mile zone is a standard used by the Insurance Services Office, a company whose fire department ratings have long been used by many insurance companies as a factor in setting customers' premiums. The best ISO rating is 1, the least fire protection rating is 10. All property more than five miles from a fire station is rated 10. The rest of Billings has an ISO rating of 3, according to Fire Chief Bill Rash.

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The distance from fire stations is reflected in statistics presented Monday to the council: BFD's average response time is about twice as long as the national standard. 

"We are two fire stations under the national average," Rash told The Gazette. "We're just trying to get to the national average."

Even with reserve funding, this year's budget cut police and firefighter overtime and training. This is a very short-sighted decision. Citizens depend on cops and firefighters to be ready for a tremendous variety of emergencies and to have the skills to handle all of them. Skimping on professional training (which often requires overtime pay) doesn't make our city safer.

Reserve dilemma

No one number or data set provides a comprehensive picture of Billings' public safety needs. By looking at many aspects of crime prevention, fire prevention, traffic safety, response times and call volume, the council and the public will have a better understanding of what must be improved in our city.

Because the city has budgeted general fund reserves to fund a portion of public safety for the past few years, a revenue increase apparently will be required in 2020 just to maintain the dollar amount of spending budgeted this year.

It is uncertain what remedy the City Council will choose, but any substantial revenue increase will require voter approval. If voters approved an increase in taxes in the November 2020 General Election, the increase would first go on tax bills in November 2021 and the city would start receiving the new revenue in January 2022. That might not be soon enough to maintain existing public safety service levels over the next 15 months.

Now is the time for citizens to educate themselves about public safety. One place to start is taking a look at the information presented Monday to the council. The slides shown to the council are posted on the city website and at billingsgazette.com with this Gazette opinion. Find out what the council members were told and then talk to your council representatives — and candidates — about what you want.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had an incorrect number for the estimated number of firefighters needed to staff two new fire stations. The correct number is 30.

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