Bigfork Fire Department Seeks Mill Levy to Maintain Services

Fire chief says if levy doesn't pass, fire department would likely have to eliminate emergency medical services

By Molly Priddy
Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon Captain Katie Edwards remains frozen as cars passing the Bigfork Fire Department honk in recognition of September 11, 2001. Starting at 6:46 a.m., the time in Montana when the first plane collided with the World Trade Center in New York, firefighters took turns standing in stoic remembrance, rotating each hour. “It’s really an emotional thing,” said Chief Chuck Harris. “People stopping, giving hugs, honking horns, giving thumbs up and saying thanks.”

The Bigfork Fire Department has proposed a mill levy for its fire district to help sustain its current level of services.

Without a levy, under the current funding structure, the fire department will likely run out of money in three to four years, according to Fire Chief Mark Thiry.

The levy asks for 15 mills, or about $350,000 annually. That translates to a $40 tax increase annually for a house worth $200,000.

The Bigfork Fire Department started in 1941 as a volunteer organization, and added emergency medical services (EMS) in the 1970s. By the 2000s, a shortage of ambulance staffing was affecting the fire department and the Bigfork QRU, and the two merged in 2010.

As an ambulance service, the fire department has 24-hour advanced life-support coverage, which means paramedic-level training ready to assist. But due to the department’s volunteer beginnings, it never had the structure in place to begin paying paramedics and EMTs.

Volunteer numbers have since shrunk, with only four volunteers now at the fire department. The rest have crossed over into paid status to work ambulance shifts, Thiry said, and federal law prohibits a worker from being paid for one task at a department while volunteering for another.

Despite a smaller staff, the department’s call volume has increased by 200 percent in the last 10 years. There were 922 calls for service in 2017, ranking Bigfork’s ambulance as the fourth busiest of the 11 ambulance services in the county.

Currently, the department has staffing for one of its two ambulances. If they receive a call while they’re already out on one — which happens three out of every 20 calls — another ambulance service or helicopter is called to cover the second call, Thiry said. In that instance, the Bigfork Fire Department loses revenue and the patient often experiences increased costs.

“We are a paramedic provider service, and if (the Bigfork fire district) wants to maintain that then we have to come up with some cash,” Thiry said.

Bigfork’s service district includes Condon, Blue Bay and Many Lakes, and trips to Missoula County are not subsidized. Trips to Lake County generate about $2,500 per year for the department, Thiry said.

If voters pass the mill levy on May 8, Thiry said the fire department would be able to expand its capabilities to match its call volume, as well as be able to plan for equipment and infrastructure improvements.

If it fails, Thiry said the fire department would likely have to eliminate 24-hour staffing, as well as emergency medical services in general, leaving a 30-minute response time from ambulances in Kalispell.

“We know it’s needed. We’re not asking for luxuries. We just want to continue doing what we’re doing,” Thiry said.

For more information on the mill levy, visit www.bigforkfd.com.

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