The city of Kalispell has been working on rebuilding relationships with the rural volunteer fire departments since January 2010. The city’s new administration, inclusive of the city manager, fire chief, myself and the city council, felt it prudent to begin discussions with the West Valley Fire Department in particular, as West Valley’s tax base was most affected by recent city annexations, resulting in strained relations.
After the fire in Stillwater Estates, it was clear the poor relationship began to affect fire response time, with the potential to affect public safety. That risk was not acceptable to city administration. So the city extended an olive branch and the West Valley Board of Trustees was very receptive. It was clear in the joint meetings held that the West Valley Trustees in attendance, though armed with several legitimate criticisms of the city, were very much interested in finding resolution for the sake of the public they serve. A common goal was developed, and from there a plan for creating a better working relationship was adopted.
By the end of discussions last summer, it was determined that in order to actually provide mutual aid to West Valley, the city of Kalispell needed a water tender. (Rural departments operate in areas that do not have hydrants, and until now the city only had fire equipment that required hydrants to operate.) A water tender was also a necessary purchase by the city, as with annexation of developments that have not installed hydrants, the need for self-contained watering equipment is required. Both parties agreed that once the tender was purchased and available for use, we would work together to establish new “run cards” that would include a place for Kalispell on West Valley’s run card, and West Valley on Kalispell’s run card. (A “run card” tells the 911 center which departments to dispatch, and the order in which the dispatch should occur.)
As promised, the city moved forward with the purchase of the water tender. The tender is to be delivered to Kalispell in the spring, when transport of the tender can occur without inclement weather. Upon delivery, the city intends to follow through with its commitment to West Valley (and in turn to Smith Valley as the tender will also allow us to provide mutual aid to that department) and meet to amend our respective run cards.
While the loss of lives in the Liberty Street fire was tragic, the actions of the city firemen and the assisting departments were exemplary. The response time of our city firemen was incredible; indeed, as the firemen were already in an engine returning from another call, no delay in “dressing out” for the Liberty Street call occurred. The fire was well managed, and more than sufficiently manned with over 35 firefighters on the scene at one time. Simply put, the outcome of the fire would not have been any different had West Valley or Smith Valley been present. Thus, it came as quite a shock when the chiefs from both departments decided to publicly lodge their criticism of the city in the press (Jan. 26 Beacon: “Recent Fires Underscore Rifts Between Departments”).
It is my understanding that both chiefs have resigned from their respective departments, and since the article was published, we have had calls from both departments requesting further meetings to discuss resolution and to partner together more. We anticipate finding opportunities to train together and otherwise share resources and equipment. We are committed to working diligently toward forging these partnerships and greatly appreciate the efforts of both departments to extend the olive branch in turn. We heartily extend our support to the new chiefs of West Valley and Smith Valley. In addition, we wish the former chiefs well in their future endeavors.
Last week’s article does not change the city’s resolve in forging good relationships with the rural fire departments. The taxpayers of Flathead County deserve responsive and effective public service, and it is our collective obligation to provide quality fire protection. West Valley and Smith Valley have both made clear this is their goal as much as it is ours. To this end, the city of Kalispell will continue discussions with both departments, and will follow through in changing its run cards once the tender is delivered to include both departments in areas within the city’s jurisdiction where each respective department’s assistance will increase efficiency and public safety.
Tammi Fisher is the mayor of Kalispell.
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