A New Engine for an Old Fleet

Bad Rock Volunteer Fire Department purchases new vehicle and grapples with future equipment funding challenges

By Madeleine Lamon
Bad Rock Fire Department's Engine 1331, a new structural type III engine, pictured on July 12, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For the past two months, volunteers with Bad Rock Volunteer Fire Department have been deploying and enjoying the newest, cherry-red addition to their station: Engine 1331.

The hunt for the new vehicle, a structural type III engine with a powerful pumping system, began over a year and a half ago to replace an older vehicle.

The department, which formed a committee to discuss purchasing a new engine, spent nearly 10 months making decisions concerning the exact specifications for the new truck, Dave Hardy, a five-year volunteer with the department, said. By early 2018, the department had sent its requests to four potential manufacturers and commissioned the vehicle.

Engine 1331 arrived in February and was ready for service in May.

Since then, firefighters have been busy trying to fully stock and organize the contents of the truck, which carries multiple hoses, a small generator, a ladder, traffic supplies, nozzles, valves, extra air bottles, foam and 500 gallons of water.

Fitting up to five passengers, but able to be operated by a single firefighter, the truck acts as “a more diversified tool in the tool box,” according to Hunter Moss, a recently retired 12-year veteran of the station. He added that the engine, which can pump water at a rate of 1,000 gallons per minute and stands 10 feet, 8 inches, will help to protect structures and fight wildfires even in difficult-to-reach places.

The Bad Rock Volunteer Fire Department, which was established in 1959, is staffed by 28 volunteers who are responsible for 52 square miles of land classified as Wildland Urban Interface — areas in which human-made structures abut or intermingle with undeveloped wildlands. According to National Fire Prevention Association data, out of the nearly 30,000 U.S. fire departments, about 67 percent are staffed entirely by volunteers. Of the 347 Montana fire departments, 20 serve the Flathead Valley.

Hardy explained that Bad Rock commissioned the new engine in order to replace an aging vehicle, which was long past the National Fire Protection Association’s 20-year retirement requirement for fire engines. He said the department hopes to replace its next oldest vehicle, which is 22 years old, in about 10 years, creating a decade-long replacement cycle for organization.

Cost, however, is a problematic factor for the replacement process, as the department has only three main sources of funding.

In addition to community donations, which make up a small fraction of its income, Bad Rock earn money from firefighting lease agreements in which volunteers and equipment dispatched to scenes in other districts can be retroactively paid for their efforts if they’ve worked for more than four hours.

Even though there are instances of lucrative firefighting periods, Hardy emphasized that the department “can’t bank on making any money on wildland fires.” Instead, the majority of the station’s funds come from tax dollars. Hardy warned, however, that its current income rates will not suffice in the future.

“Nobody likes tax increases,” Hardy said, “but looking at 20 years, we need to increase revenue by $35,000 a year to have a zero balance.”

To pay for the more than $325,000 new engine, the department was able to take out a loan. Hardy emphasized, however, that Bad Rock will need to find a new way to pay for equipment and rigs if they want to maintain safety standards.

“We didn’t go out and ask for more money to buy this new engine,” he said, “but we can’t do that indefinitely.”