POTOMAC – It’s much-loved but even more worn after a quarter of a century.
The quick response unit pickup for the Greenough Potomac Volunteer Fire Department is, if not on its last wheels, at least creaking at the U-joints.
“It’s a 1991 (model) with 140,000 or 150,000 miles on it, and we’re starting to see quite a few mechanical breakdowns,” Fire Chief Ryan Hall said.
One of the last straws came a couple of summers ago when the three-quarter-ton Chevy had to be towed to Missoula for repair.
“There’s nothing more embarrassing than having a fire department rig on a tow truck going through town,” said Hall.
The question for the very rural fire district arises: Do you dump a bunch of money into the old truck, which in many ways is the face of the department as the first vehicle, and sometimes the only one on the scene of an emergency?
Or do you raise enough to buy a new one that can better squeeze down narrow back roads and, in a pinch, haul a patient to a place more accessible to a two-wheel drive ambulance?
Complicating the answer: A new one costs close to $60,000, far beyond the budget of your average rural volunteer fire department.
“To put it in perspective, our annual budget is $38,000 a year ... and we typically spend about $48,000,” said Hall. “We’re able to do that because we do wildland fire contracting in the summer, so we’re able to generate a little bit of extra revenue.”
Last year, the fire board decided to go for it. The old QRU is being phased out. A new 1-ton Chevy four-wheel-drive is on order and will be here in a couple of months. It comes with a longer wheel base, a quad cab to haul more people, and a utility box rather than a topper on the bed.
A sustained fundraising effort has the department within the last, toughest $10,000 to $11,000 of being able to pay for it.
General Motors’ Government Bid Assistance program helped. It provides discounted vehicle pricing to eligible state and local government agencies, including qualifying volunteer fire departments. That took $12,000 off the purchase price to begin with.
The fire board has committed $15,000 of its own money accrued from the wildland fire contracts that provide staffed engines on fires outside the district.
So far, the rest – well over $20,000 – has come from private donations and local businesses such as Paws Up Resort; Blackfoot Telecommunications; and the Blackfoot's bank, CoBank. Hall said most of the individual donations have come from people in the valley, but they’ve trickled in from as far away as California.
Besides the aging quick response unit truck, which Hall said was used when the department bought it in 2000 or 2001, the Greenough Potomac Volunteer Fire Department has type 1 engines, wildland fire engines and water tenders – 10 apparatus in all.
They serve Montana Highway 200 travelers and Blackfoot recreationists, as well as 600 homes, many of them set off main thoroughfares.
“We run anywhere from 75 to 100 calls a year,” Hall said. “We have three stations to heat and insure and do maintenance on, we have 10 and soon to be 11 vehicles to maintain, keep fueled up and keep tires on.”
Throw in training sessions and equipment maintenance and updates and, like many volunteer fire departments, “it’s tight,” said Hall.
But so are some of the places the first responders to a fire or emergency must get to. The current QRU truck has a topper rigged out with shelving and cabinets.
“There’s a lot of wasted space,” the chief said.
A new one with a long bed and utility box will use the space more efficiently.
“We’ll leave the whole center open so if we ever needed to – whether it’s on a slick, icy road or a narrow, sketchy dirt road – we could forward a patient out to an ambulance or medical helicopter,” Hall said.
Contributions for a new QRU truck can be sent to Ryan Hall, fire chief, Greenough Potomac Volunteer Fire Department, 30039 Potomac Road, Potomac, MT 59823.