Missoula Rural Fire District map

A map of the Missoula Rural Fire District.

Thus far, the Missoula Rural Fire District has managed to keep up with expanding development, intensifying wildfires and broadening demands — everything from advanced life support to rescue operations to HAZMAT response — even as its equipment ages and its pool of volunteer firefighters shrinks.

But there have been some close calls.

Captain Ron Lubke recounted for the Missoulian editorial board a recent CPR call to a home off Mullan Road. The call came in just minutes before two firefighters were preparing to leave their station for the night. Had the call come in slightly later, only Lubke and one other firefighter, a qualified and well-trained but relatively new hire, would have been available to respond right away. And that would have meant a potential delay in providing life-saving emergency response.

Fortunately, the timing was right, and the patient survived his heart attack.

“It’s a fantastic feeling,” Lubke told the Missoulian, “to shake the hand of someone who was dead the first time you met them.”

MRFD crews have been responding to a rising number of calls, and now receive some 2,800 each year. Last year, about 1,600 of those were medical calls, with the majority requiring advanced life support.

Last fall, as the weather turned colder, the district also saw a rash in motorhome and RV fires. And just last week, MRFD crews responded to an intentional burn on private property that quickly got out of hand as winds picked up, eventually scorching nearly 28 acres near Lolo. Firefighters put out the blaze before it could reach several structures, and there were no injuries. While MRFD crews were thus occupied, Missoula City Fire and Frenchtown Fire departments provided backup coverage in case other calls came in.

Also last week, Missoula County voters, including roughly 18,000 voters in the MRFD, were mailed ballots for the May 7 election. Those fire district voters are being asked to permanently increase a mill levy to raise about $1.4 million a year, money that would allow the MRFD to hire, train and equip 10 additional career firefighters, who would also double as emergency medical technicians, and update equipment from fire engines to medical devices.

This would mean that all five of the district’s stations could be fully equipped and staffed with at least two professional firefighters around the clock, every day of the year — and that would better guarantee an immediate, comprehensive response in case of emergency. At the moment, the district falls short of National Fire Protection Association standards for the recommended number of personnel on scene within eight minutes.

Rural fire districts in Montana are uniquely challenged in that they cover large areas in which homes may be widely dispersed and difficult to reach at the end of narrow, poorly maintained dirt roads. The MRFD covers more than 98 square miles outside the urban core of Missoula, and Fire Chief Chris Newman estimates its jurisdiction currently includes some 40,000 individuals.

The levy increase would raise property taxes on district homeowners by a substantial amount: nearly $40 a year for every $100,000 in assessed property value. Given that the district’s budget relies almost entirely on property taxes, these voters have a rather unique opportunity to have a direct say in the level of service they want from their firefighters.

But voters are understandably leery about passing yet another property tax increase, having approved seven major bonds since 1996 that are still on their annual tax bills.

“We are very cognizant of the fact that taxpayers are getting hit from every angle,” Newman said in a phone interview with the Missoulian. “All of us are taxpayers too. The last thing we wanted to do was approach taxpayers, but we believe that from where we are, to get to the next level of providing the services that taxpayers need and deserve, this is the only solution.”

As it stands, the district is not able to guarantee two career firefighters at every station between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Volunteers help relieve the shortage, and the MRFD has trained some 225 volunteers over the past 11 years or so. However, as have many other fire departments across Montana and the United States, it has seen a steady decline in the number of volunteers, and has been able to retain only about 12% of its trainees. Currently, it counts only 26 volunteers and 42 career firefighter/EMTs. It also has a dozen “residents” who live at the fire stations and are studying to become professional firefighters.

The district has asked for a mill levy increase only once in the previous 27 years. That was for a mere $440,000 a year, and it was used to retain six firefighters it had hired through a federal grant. It’s worth pointing out that this mill levy increase actually saved money for many homeowners in the district, because it allowed the district to improve its Insurance Service Office rating from class 5 to class 4, resulting in a reduction in fire insurance premiums of between 3 percent and 13 percent.

If this levy increase passes, Newman expects the district to be set for the next 20 years, even allowing for the projected increase in calls as the population grows over the next two decades.

In recent elections, Missoula County voters have expressed support for the jail, library and local schools, for open space, parks and trails. These were all worthy projects that won the approval of the majority of voters. But if anything is worth paying more taxes, it’s basic emergency services such as police, fire and medical response.

MRFD voters would be smart to invest in their own safety, and vote to approve the mill levy increase.

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