News & Features

Tempers Flare Over First Responders in Lincoln County

Cabinet View Fire Department, Lincoln County commissioners clash over responsibilities

A quiet area along U.S. Highway 2 south of Libby has become the center of controversy in Lincoln County over whether a volunteer fire service should respond to emergencies other than structure fires.

The Cabinet View Fire Department, which covers a 14-square-mile area south of Libby known as the Cabinet View Fire Service Area, wants to respond to emergencies such as medical incidents and car accidents. But Lincoln County commissioners say the group isn’t qualified and those situations are best left to the fire department and ambulance service just up the road.

“The issue is that the Cabinet View Fire Service Area was established to fight structure fires and structure fires only,” Commissioner Marianne Roose said.

Cabinet View Fire Chief Dan Leavell disagreed.

“We are here and we can be at the scene of any incident faster than any other responder because we’re here,” Leavell said. “We can serve the public – our community – better than anyone else.”

The issue, which Roose said needed to be addressed because of posters and emails circulating throughout the area that were “quite vulgar and full of lies,” came to a head last week during a county commission meeting.

The poster – which was provided to the Flathead Beacon by Roose – said the county commissioners planned on dissolving the fire service immediately and told residents to “save and post the Cabinet View Fire Department EMT’s phone numbers or you may bleed to death waiting for Libby Ambulance to arrive.”

Leavell said his department was not behind the posters or the emails.

“Unfortunately there is a lot of rumors and bad feelings, but we’re trying to rise above that,” he said. “We really try and take the high road in all of this and uphold our commitment to the community.”

Roose made clear at last week’s meeting that the fire department isn’t closing. But she also maintained that the fire department does not have the adequate training nor has it gone through the proper procedures with Lincoln County to respond to emergencies other than structure fires.

Leavell countered that his department does have the training, and in 2009 was issued a temporary basic life support non-transport license, which lasted 90 days. According to a document from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the application for a full license was rejected after an inspection partially because the department couldn’t get the closest ambulance service – in this case Libby – to partner with it.

But Penny Kyes, business office manager for the Libby Volunteer Ambulance, tells a different story.

“For the record we’ve never once been asked to partner with them,” she said, adding that the first time a partnership came up was at last week’s meeting and because of the rocky relationship between the two agencies a partnership was unlikely, in her opinion.

Roose said there are liability concerns as well.

“If they want to expand their service area there is a procedure they can go through with Lincoln County,” she said. “When they respond to something other than a structure fire then Lincoln County is in a liable position.”

Roose said in some instances the Cabinet View Fire Department has dispatched itself and pointed to a March 2011 letter to the department from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

In the letter provided to the Flathead Beacon, Jim DeTienne, supervisor of the EMS and Trauma Systems Section, said, “We have obtained evidence that Cabinet View Fire Department personnel are self-dispatching to medical calls and otherwise representing themselves as licensed providers authorized to respond to medical calls in the community. Under 50-6-306 MCA (Montana Code Annotated), a person may not conduct or operate an emergency medical service without first obtaining a license from the department.”

Leavell said the incidents addressed in the letter were unique.

According to Leavell, one incident occurred when an EMT with the fire department was returning home from a training exercise. When he arrived home, his wife informed him that his sister was in trouble and he quickly called 911 and went to see if he could help. When the ambulance arrived, they found the EMT, still wearing his Cabinet View Fire Department jacket, on the scene helping the patient.

In another case, Leavell said two EMTs heard a radio conversation in regards to a medical emergency a half block away from the fire department. Leavell said the EMTs thought they could get there sooner and help their neighbor before the ambulance arrived.

“So did we self-dispatch?” Leavell asked. “I don’t know if you want to call it that – it’s more like our EMTs helping our neighbors.”

But in Kyes’ opinion, the Cabinet View firefighters and EMTs were “intruders” and falsely representing themselves.

It should be noted that the letter, provided by Roose, did not specify the incident.

According to Roose and Leavell the conflict between the fire department and the county has been ongoing. It has also attracted the attention of other first responders in the area.

Upper Yaak Fire Service Chief Mike Sanders said Lincoln County doesn’t have the right to tell the Cabinet View Fire Department how it should operate and judge whether it has adequate training.

“The commission seems to think they control how the fire departments work, but in reality it is the (department) board and the fire chief,” he said, referencing Montana Code Annotated 2009.

Under part 7-33-2101, the county commissioners are able to establish a rural fire department. Under part 7-33-2001, it is the duty of the fire chief to operate the established department, and he or she is the highest authority, with the ability to develop programs and training.

“It’s not the county commissioners’ job to figure out the operations of the agency; it’s out of their jurisdiction,” Sanders said.

However, under part 50-6-306 of the Montana Code Annotated, a department still needs to obtain the appropriate license to operate an emergency medical service, something the Cabinet View Fire Department does not have.

Leavell said his department meets the requirements to get the license save for the partnership with an area ambulance service.

“We don’t want to take anything away from anyone, we just want to work with everyone,” he said.

But Roose doesn’t see it his way.

“We see a lack of cooperation and not following correct processes,” she said. “Something has to change. This is a real leadership and management issue.”

Roose said the county commissioners are working with the county attorney to review what type of legal actions may be taken against the fire department in the near future.