Staffing Shortage Forces Temporary Closure of North Kalispell Fire Station

Union leaders say closure a symptom of chronic resource shortage in the face of rising demand for emergency services

By Tristan Scott
Kalispell Fire Station No. 62 pictured on July 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The fire station on Kalispell’s north side closed temporarily this week amid staffing shortages, prompting union members to warn the public of prolonged response times and delays in emergency care, and to describe a trend of diminishing resources that has led to chronic staffing problems.

Located at 255 Old Reserve Drive, Kalispell Fire Station 62 closed on July 21 and was slated to remain closed until July 25 at 7 a.m., according to union leaders and city officials. A paper sign posted at the fire station’s entrance reads: “Sorry, this fire station is closed today due to a staffing shortage.”

Although the fire station’s closure is temporary, union leaders say it’s indicative of a problem with deeper roots, and one which deserves recognition as the Flathead Valley continues its exponential growth, while resources for emergency services remain stagnant and have even dipped over time.

“Residents of Kalispell should be advised that the consequence of continual station closures undoubtedly creates a disturbing trend in which services expected by our community are not met,” according to a press release from members of the International Association of Firefighters Local 547, who framed the issue as pervasive. “Numerous other results of these staffing shortages can be anticipated as delays in response, increased morbidity and mortality, and a decreased short/long-term patient outcome following initial patient contact.”

Kalispell Fire Chief Dave Dedman confirmed the closure and acknowledged that staffing shortages have been problematic, explaining that the city is in the process of filling two full-time positions that are vacant due to recent retirements, and has subsequently struggled to maintain adequate staffing levels.

“We are actively trying to hire people back and fill those openings, but we haven’t been able to fill jobs as quickly as we normally would,” Dedman said Friday, adding that concerns surrounding COVID-19 have exacerbated some personnel issues and led to a longer-than-normal delay in the hiring process.

The public-health crisis has also placed a greater strain on sick leave, Dedman said, as personnel are required to stay home if they feel ill.

Still, calls for emergency medical services (EMS) through the Kalispell Fire Department have been increasing for years, and in an effort to keep up with demand, city officials in 2014 proposed a mill levy to raise annual property taxes to bolster the EMS fund. The levy failed by fewer than 200 votes.

“Our call volume grows every year, and in 2014 we reached out to gain community support for a mill levy, but it was unsuccessful,” Dedman said. “We have been trying to move forward since that day, but every day is a struggle. And we’re busy.”

Since opening in 2006, Kalispell Fire Station 62 has provided an all-hazard response to the city’s northern district while assisting rural districts in a mutual-aid partnership. The station’s staffing requirements include a ladder truck, two advanced life-support ambulances, a wildland fire brush truck, and a water truck.

When the station is forced to close due to staffing shortages, that equipment is rendered inoperable due to inadequate manpower, according to union leaders.

“I think things have come to a head recently because of the department’s failure to be able to hire for those vacant positions, but there has been a staffing shortage for several years,” Local 547 President Don Thibert said. “Unfortunately, it appears this trend is continuous, and the community will experience further station closures in the future.”

In 2018, the city of Kalispell funded an “EMS Study” that recommended 11 firefighters per shift, which would bring total staffing to 33 firefighters. However, staffing remains well below the study’s recommended level, and falls short of historic levels dating back a decade.

“For reference, full staffing in 2010 was 30 firefighters with an annual call volume of less than 3,000 calls,” according to the release from union officials. “Current staffing at KFD is 26 firefighters with a projected call volume of over 4,000 calls this year.”

Dedman said the city has applied for a grant to fund an additional full-time position, but that grant application process is ongoing.

“It’s a long-term issue, for sure,” Dedman said. “There haven’t been any new positions added since that [EMS] report, and that’s always dependent on tax entities. The most costly thing that we have is personnel, and the taxes really aren’t there. We see an increase with the growth, but it takes time to catch up.”

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