Rodney Dresbach received an unwelcome surprise when he opened his e-mail account on a recent Monday to find that the Montana Department of Transportation would be chip sealing a road he travels regularly that same day. For most drivers, such roadwork poses a mild, if necessary, inconvenience. But Dresbach is chief of the rural West Valley Fire Department, and when he learns of roadwork along the routes his firefighters travel to and from emergency calls, he must plan around detours and the possibility of delays.
Which is why he has grown frustrated with MDT for giving what Dresbach considers insufficient notice to him and other emergency services when it conducts roadwork that can cause travel delays.
“There should be some sort of a plan in place, then I can turn around and say to my people, ‘This road is going to be this way,’” Dresbach said. “But when they’re taking up the main arterials and they’re not telling us, that’s where the problem comes in.”
“This has been an ongoing issue for years,” he added.
And Dresbach is not alone. Fire chiefs throughout the valley – including South Kalispell, Bigfork, Creston and the City of Kalispell back up Dresbach’s assertion that MDT is failing to give their departments enough notice on road projects. While all the chiefs interviewed said delays from state projects are minor and have never had serious consequences, the potential for such an outcome looms over every emergency call.
“If it’s going to take longer to get there than it would otherwise, it’s a big deal,” Gary Mahugh, the Creston fire chief, said. “It can certainly determine the outcome of an emergency call.”
MDT officials, however, maintain that the state is consistent in e-mailing local emergency services, as well as the media, every Wednesday regarding road projects scheduled for the following week and updating those bulletins as necessary. Additionally, MDT holds pre-construction meetings before projects, and MDT job sites are set up to speed emergency vehicles through.
In northwest Montana, the weekly e-mail bulletins go out to Flathead, Lincoln and Lake counties, according to Kyle Demars, MDT’s Kalispell division maintenance chief. In the case of the June 29 notification Dresbach received on the same day work was occurring, Demars said the staff member in charge of sending out the e-mail was out of the office the previous week, and that updates issued that late are rare for MDT.
“We’re trying to communicate to everybody what’s out there,” Demars added, not only for the safety of the public and emergency services, but the contractors carrying out the roadwork.
But for Dresbach, these weekly bulletins, which typically include a one-sentence description of the planned roadwork, don’t provide enough information for planning.
“They’re saying, ‘Well, this is good enough’ – that gives me nothing,” he said. “This is a public service announcement; this doesn’t tell me anything from an emergency services standpoint.”
And it’s the updates to the Wednesday MDT bulletins that have Dresbach and others puzzled and frustrated. On the afternoon of May 22, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Dresbach was sent an e-mail from MDT notifying him of roadwork on Reserve Street. But Dresbach said he didn’t open the e-mail until the following Tuesday morning after the holiday weekend – the same day the work was getting underway.
Over the two days the Reserve Street work was going on, West Valley Fire fielded two calls from Whitefish Stage Road, and emergency vehicles had to go through the construction sites.
“We got through but I’ll bet it delayed us at least three minutes,” Dresbach said.
The calls concerned a fender bender and a small grease fire: nothing major.
“Luckily there were no serious injuries,” he added. “If I’d had to have an ambulance coming my way, or something along those lines, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Dresbach also noted that while road workers are prepared to speed emergency vehicles through job sites, volunteer firefighters unaware of construction are often delayed when they’re in their personal vehicles trying to get to the station for an emergency.
“We’re volunteers, we’re not there all the time,” he said. “We’re coming from work or home.”
Other chiefs tell similar stories. Acting Kalispell City Fire Chief Dan Diehl recalled a road construction project last year on the Reserve Loop that prevented firefighters from being able to turn left when leaving the northern station. He did not learn of the project until the work was underway, which necessitated operating primarily out of the downtown fire station for the duration of the project.
“That was definitely something where we pulled all the apparatus out of the (northern) station and brought it all downtown,” Diehl said. “We just said, ‘Geesh, would have been nice to know something like that.’”
“We really don’t have any notice whatsoever here at the Fire Department,” Diehl added. “There’s a breakdown there somewhere, I just don’t know where it is.”
Dresbach has discussed his concerns with MDT Director Jim Lynch, but said he is frustrated he continues to receive such late notifications.
Lynch, meanwhile, believes his department does everything possible to get the word out on pending roadwork, but if there’s a communication breakdown somewhere, he wants to solve it.
“There just needs to be a little more cooperation and understanding,” Lynch said. “If that process isn’t working, then we need to sit down and find another one that does.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.