Last week, Lincoln County commissioners voted to dissolve the Cabinet View Fire Service Area, which will lead to the shutdown of the Cabinet View Fire Department in 60 days barring a petition. Commissioner Tony Berget said the decision came down to a lack of proper licensing at the department and an inability to work with other agencies.
Firefighters at the Cabinet View Fire Department, however, said county commissioners were overstepping their bounds and had no right to dismantle the fire service area, which includes about 250 homes and 1,500 people. They also said the commissioners should have waited for the results from a case currently in district court to determine what incidents the fire department can respond to.
But before the service area is dissolved, landowners will have the opportunity to sign a petition in support of keeping the area intact, which Berget said could overturn the decision.
The dispute between the county, other emergency agencies and the Cabinet View Fire Department, which serves a rural area along U.S. Highway 2 south of Libby known as the Cabinet View Fire Service Area, stems from a disagreement over whether the volunteer group can respond to anything other than structure fires. Since being established a decade ago, the volunteer fire department has worked to expand its services, including responding to medical emergencies. However, to do so it must be licensed by the state. According to Fire Chief Dan Leavell, the department has everything needed for a license except a transport agreement with the closest ambulance service, which is the volunteer department in Libby. But the Libby department says it has never been approached about a transport agreement.
Even though the Cabinet View department did not have the appropriate license, it began self-dispatching to emergencies in its area, which both county commissioners and other agencies say is a liability. According to Kim Christopherson, an attorney for the Cabinet View Fire Service Area Board (which oversees the service area), the department and board were threatened with legal action. In response, the board filed a petition for declaratory judgment in district court in November 2011 to determine what it could and couldn’t do.
Christopherson, in an email to the Beacon earlier this year, said it’s a matter of safety.
“The closest resource for emergency services was not being dispatched,” Christopherson wrote. “That means, just as an example, that people involved in car crashes on icy and dark Highway 2 sat there in a ditch or in the road for far longer than necessary while they waited for Libby Ambulance or Libby Fire finally to arrive.”
But Berget said the department must follow the law and because it hasn’t, the commissioners moved to dissolve the service area this spring. The effort started in May when local landowners filed a petition for dissolution. That led to a public hearing and a unanimous decision by the county commission on June 13 to dissolve the service area in 60 days. The dissolution of the service area means the volunteer fire department would have to close.
“If the (department) leadership doesn’t change, we feel we have no other option,” Berget said.
The commissioners outlined three reasons for dissolution when they announced the decision, including the refusal to comply with state laws, the inability to work with other area departments and the refusal to comply with requests to stop self-dispatching.
The decision to dissolve could be overturned if the fire department is able to get more than half of the landowners in the Cabinet View area to sign a petition in support of it before Aug. 14, which Assistant Fire Chief Mike France said is feasible.
“The people who live in the fire service area overwhelmingly support us. They want us there,” he said. “If the people who live in the fire service area gather enough signatures it’ll be a veto of the dissolution.”
According to Leavell, petitions began to circulate even before the county commission voted to dissolve the fire service area. As of June 14, he said they had about 80 percent of the signatures needed to overturn the decision.
France questioned whether the county could even dissolve the fire service area and asked why it couldn’t have waited for the declaratory judgment to make its way through the judicial system. He also said he believes the county commissioners are “intoxicated by power.”
While neither side has been able to see eye to eye, all involved have agreed that public safety should be the primary concern.
According to Berget, if the fire service area is dissolved and the fire department is closed, firefighters and medical personnel from Libby would begin to respond to both medical calls and structure fires in the Cabinet View area.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.