Report Indicates ‘Strained’ Fire and EMS Resources at Kalispell Fire Department

A consultant recommends more staff and an additional fire station within the municipality to keep up with an increasing call volume; city officials plan for an EMS levy

By Maggie Dresser
A fire crew loads up into an engine at Kalispell Fire Station No. 62 on Jan. 20, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A consultant with the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) who completed a data analysis report of the Kalispell Fire Department (KFD) told the city council at a Monday night work session that the municipality needs to increase its staffing levels to keep up with population growth.

Peter Finley of CPSM recommended that the city increase its minimum on-duty staff to eight personnel from the current five and to create a training and safety officer position, which would lift duties from Assistant Fire Chief Jessica Kinzer, totaling to three additional positions in the first year.

In the following years, Finley recommends adding one more firefighter per shift and constructing a third fire station, which already has a proposed location at the corner of Farm to Market Road and Mountain Vista Drive in west Kalispell. Fire stations 61 and 62 are located on First Avenue East and on Old Reserve Drive.

There are currently 32 personnel that staff two fire stations and cover approximately 14 square miles.

“Current staffing and deployment models are strained in keeping up with the increasing calls for service,” Finley said. “The department’s staffing per shift is lower today than when Station 62 opened in 2006.”

With no money available in the city’s general fund to finance the new positions, the increased staffing would be reliant on a levy – letting taxpayers decide on a ballot.

“In the end, all of those things come back to this core – which is community expectations,” Finley said. “What does the community expect for service?”

According to the report, the KFD and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel are struggling to keep up with the increased call volume within city limits as the population grows. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 4.8% growth in the call volume, followed by 11% growth from 2020 and 2021.

“What’s particularly interesting for Kalispell is that 2020 was the epicenter of the covid pandemic and it was widely reported throughout fire and EMS services that many providers had a reduction of calls in 2020,” Finley said. “Kalispell had almost a 5% increase, which is probably the first place we heard of that had a significant increase.”

Finley also acknowledged that the tourist population also contributes to the call volume and Glacier National Park saw 1.9 million visitors in 2022.

In 2022, there was an average of 1.8 fire calls per day while EMS calls averaged 8.4 calls per day.

Kalispell’s population has grown by 19% since 2018, adding 4,500 residents and has resulted in a spike in fire and EMS demand. In that same time frame, calls for service has grown by 23.5%.

“Kalispell is really experiencing unprecedented development in its history,” Finley said. “With infill growth and an expanding footprint of demographics to drive fire and EMS demand, you need to adjust the fire and EMS delivery system to meet those new demands ensuing community risk.”

Despite the city’s inadequate staffing, Finley praised the department for achieving a low Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of 3, a score that reflects how prepared a community is for fires and impacts a property owner’s insurance rate. But Finley warned that recent reports indicate the score is close to rising to a 4 rating as service demand rises.

According to the report, KFD and EMS is lagging in response times, which is about five minutes longer than nationwide averages.

City officials recognize the need for more fire and EMS personnel, but City Manager Doug Russell said the budget forecasted an $800,000 structural deficit after adding four positions in recent years.

“To hit those standards and expectations, it’s going to require a levy,” Russell said.

Russell said another work session will be scheduled in September to outline public outreach for residents and an EMS levy would likely be on the ballot in the coming months, either in the general election or a special election.

Kalispell voters rejected an EMS levy in 2014, which was the last time it was on the ballot.

“We’ve been having discussions since 2014 about staffing levels – those didn’t go away when that levy failed so we’ve been continuing to add those in an incremental fashion,” Russell said.

Fire Chief Dan Pearce stressed the need for more staff as demand rises, training hours and requirements become stricter and as volunteer departments in neighboring regions shrink.

“Our call volume is going up, our requirements are going up and we’re getting in a tough situation,” Pearce said.