With its fire hall in a state of disrepair and demand for services surging, the Evergreen Fire Department is asking voters to support a $4.4 million bond request to fund a new station.
If passed, the proposed station would be about 17,000 square feet and include expanded fire bays for equipment and vehicles, staff offices, on-site sleeping and bathing facilities, a training area and a 70-person community room, among other required equipment and facilities. Mail-in ballots were sent out last week, and need to be returned to the Flathead County Election Department by mail or in person by 8 p.m. Sept. 23.
Volunteers built the department’s current fire station located on U.S. Highway 2 in 1957. Just over a decade later, an addition was completed that more than doubled the building’s size, bringing it to about 6,500 square feet.
Today, though, fire officials say the building is in such disrepair and is so out-dated that a remodel or additions are all but impossible.
“It served us well for the last 50 years, but we’re at the point, with our calls increasing and the state that the building is in, that it’s time to consider other options,” Craig Williams, Evergreen fire chief, said. “We’ve had several different engineers in here to see if it was possible to update or fix the problems, and they all tell us we need to rebuild.”
A quick tour of the building reveals several problems. Once a popular place for community meetings, the fire hall doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it illegal for public use. The roof is in danger of collapsing under a heavy snow load and the concrete floor in the truck bay is sinking about one-half inch each year. A large crack runs across the building’s ceiling and down its load-bearing walls. There are no training facilities.
In the basement, an old well opens directly into the town’s aquifer, while runoff drains upstairs likely do the same. When the trucks are started for a call, the bay fills with blue smoke because the vehicle exhaust system is inadequate. Electrical, heating and cooling systems don’t meet current codes.
The bay doors are four feet shorter than average, requiring the department to order custom-sized equipment at a cost of about $50,000 to $75,000 more per truck, Williams said. A much-needed ladder truck is an impossibility because of space constraints, he added.
There is no emergency power source, so in the case of a power outage firefighters have to remove the doors to get the trucks out. If a storm is forecasted the department leaves its doors open – and its personnel and equipment exposed to the elements – in order to save time in case of an emergency call.
Last October the district began 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week ambulance coverage, with at least two emergency medical technicians always on duty. Evergreen and Kalispell fire departments currently are the only ones in the valley where the main stations are staffed all the time. Whitefish will begin 24/7 emergency services early next year.
There are no showers or sleeping quarters in the building, so the station’s volunteers sleep in a trailer on borrowed property next door or on the couch or floor in the recreation room.
“It’s hard to ask volunteers to put in as much time as they do in these conditions,” Williams said. “It’s not about having a fancy, new building. It’s about having a safe workplace so that we can provide the best protection possible to the community.”
The district provides services for approximately 9,000 people over 23 square miles. Over the last 10 years, the department’s call volume has increased 10-fold, from 88 calls in 1997 to 903 last year.
This year has set an even quicker pace: As of last week, Williams said the station had responded to 970 calls, an increase of more than 40 percent from this time last year.
If the bond request passes, a home with an assessed taxable market value of $100,000 would pay $67.99 a year, and a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $135.98 a year. Construction would likely begin next year.
“I understand if people don’t want to pay more taxes and that this is a hard time to ask for money,” Williams said. “I ask that they come down here, though, and take a look around and talk to us, so that whatever they decide, it will be an informed decision.”