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Mont. city council reviews increasing demands on fire, EMS

An independent report recommends making Kalispell’s EMS coordinator a full-time position and increase ambulance staffing


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By Kate Heston
Daily Inter Lake

KALISPELL, Mont. — Kalispell City Council reviewed Monday a third-party report that found that the city’s fire and emergency medical services are understaffed.

The report, presented by Peter Finley of the Center for Public Safety Management, lays out a three-year plan to better staff the Kalispell Fire Department, expand its organizational structure, increase community engagement and utilize effective resource deployment.

The findings prompted city councilors to discuss the possibility of a future levy.

Overall, the Kalispell Fire Department is a high-functioning, progressive fire and EMS agency that has the necessary components of a contemporary fire and EMS service agency, Finley said.

“What it’s struggling with is increasing demands for service, a growing city and some difficulty in trying to keep up with those demands,” he said.

As the population in Kalispell increases, so do service demands. At least one additional fire station will be needed, the report found, in addition to the two that already exist.

In Kalispell, the number of 911 calls has consistently increased since 2018, Finley said. The population has grown by 19%, the area of the city has increased by around 7% and population density has increased by 15%.

The city’s response times are below national benchmarks and the stations appear understaffed, Finley said.

The report recommends a number of solutions laid out in a year-to-year plan. In the first year, the Fire Department should hire an additional firefighter and increase the minimum on-duty staffing to eight people. It also recommends creating a training safety officer position as well as upgrading the part-time position of the EMS coordinator to full time.

In the second year, one additional firefighter would be added to each shift, increasing the minimum on-duty staffing to nine personnel. In the third year, three additional firefighters would be added, upping the minimum on-duty staffing to 10 people at all times. That would allow the city to fully staff two ambulances and two fire suppression units at all times.

“It can be humbling to see reports like this and see some of the challenges ahead of us, but I would encourage us all to not look at it in that fashion but look at it as an exciting point,” said City Manager Doug Russell.

Council previously reviewed a report from the Center for Public Safety Management regarding the Kalispell Police Department. It deemed the law enforcement agency similarly understaffed.

That report recommended the department hire five full-time equivalent officers to help with the workload.

Russell and Council discussed the lack of available funds to enact the recommendations and talked about moving forward with a levy. Since 70% of the general fund already goes into fire and law enforcement, there isn’t much extra room to move money to either department, Russell said.

"[Without a levy], we’re never going to be able to keep up and that’s just the reality of the situation,” said City Councilor Chad Graham.

Council also discussed the importance of education when it comes to understanding how fire and emergency medical services work, specifically regarding the burden of the community’s recent growth on the Fire Department.

“There’s a misconception out there because we do these things behind the scenes and they get done but people don’t realize what we’re doing,” said Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson. “So I think there is a huge education component.”

The Fire Department currently includes 35 personnel, 34 of which are sworn firefighters. Owing to Kalispell’s size, the city is required to have a professional Fire Department and cannot rely upon volunteers.

At meeting’s end, the council discussed new projects that are eligible for tax increment financing. The projects were mentioned during recent budget talks.

Specifically, councilors discussed rehabilitating the building in Depot Park and crafting a signage policy for the Parkline Trail.

“I think we’re good at just moving forward with projects that were in question,” Russell said.

Council meets again in City Hall, 201 First Ave. E., at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5. The body’s next work session is scheduled for Sept. 11

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