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You’d think running a fire department means fighting fires.

That’s what the job looked like 24 years ago when Jeff Brandt joined the Missoula City Fire Department. Now that he wears the chief’s helmet, he has to have a lot more skills under his belt.

“This year alone we’ve had five river rescues,” Brandt said. “Our training hours increase every single year. We need to know more. It’s a really dynamic, exciting place.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen confirmed Brandt’s appointment before the City Council on July 16, although the official job started on July 1. Brandt replaces Jason Diehl, who is retiring after 28 years with the fire department. Deal served six years as fire chief.

Brandt grew up in Lewistown, where his father, Lee, served in the town’s fire department and he volunteered. He joined the Air Force as a firefighter in 1986, stationed first in England for three years and then at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Along the way, he also earned an associate’s degree in fire science through the Air Force Community College and a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology engineering from Southern Illinois University.

After working two years with the Great Falls city fire department, Brandt said he wanted to try “a more metro city” and moved to Missoula.

“Joining a fire department is like immediately joining a family,” Brandt said. “There’s the shift work and night duty and you really get to know everybody’s wives and kids. It’s a great world.”

Fire departments provide unusual measuring sticks for a community’s growth. In simple terms, the Missoula Fire Department has expanded from three stations and 50 firefighters when Brandt joined in 1992, to five stations and 95 personnel in the department he leads today. A quarter-century ago, city fire trucks rolled on about 1,000 calls a year. Now they respond to 9,000.

The city’s fire department also has to plan ahead with its professional counterparts — in this case, Missoula Rural Fire Department, the fire response team at Missoula International Airport, and wildland fire crews with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. That means cooperative agreements to help one another out, as well as more complicated discussions about expanding city limits into places like Butler Creek on the northwestern edge of the Missoula Valley.

The calls have changed, too. About two-thirds of the alarms send crews to medical emergencies. The trucks now carry a kit with most of the first-response heart medications, and the department has a heart doctor on special assignment to consult on treatment options when the firefighters arrive.

Add in ice rescues in winter, wilderness rescues in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness north of town, helicopter responses to hikers on Mount Sentinel trails, trench rescues at construction sites, bears in trees and deer in swimming pools.

In mid-July, city firefighters took jet skis to rescue a family that got trapped by a tangle of exposed tree roots along a rapid just above the Silver Park boat ramp, and then supervised the removal of those roots.

A river rescue pontoon boat and a wildland pumper truck share space in Fire Station No. 1 next to the traditional ladder trucks. The city trucks come equipped with 10 avalanche rescue bags complete with locator beacons — legacy of a 2014 incident where a freak slide off Mount Jumbo killed one person and destroyed three Rattlesnake neighborhood homes.

“The talent in this valley is just incredible,” Brandt said, recalling the Jumbo avalanche. “Who carries probe poles in their car? When we got there, we had 50 or 60 people arrive with poles.”  

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.