It’s been a fast few months for the North Bannock County Fire Department, which started responding to its own calls for fires in unincorporated neighborhoods throughout the Gate City area on Oct. 1.
The process has encountered both peaks — such as the return of more than 156 training hours by 35 volunteer firefighters and the purchase of four blaze-battling vehicles and fire station to work from — as well as troughs. Two weeks after voters in the district agreed to increase property tax collections from $153,000 to $500,000 during the next two years, the department’s first ideal home collapsed during construction, killing one contractor and injuring another.
Nevertheless, the North Bannock County Fire District’s contract with the city of Chubbuck expired Oct. 1, and for the first time in decades area residents have a trained, equipped and centrally located department of its own to provide fire suppression, inspection and education services.
“Chubbuck has been getting paid to cover that response area for the last 25 years,” said North Bannock County Fire Department Chief J.R. Farnsworth. “Oct. 1 was when our contract ended with the city of Chubbuck and we had to be operational by that date. It’s been a busy last four months.”
In just two months, the department has responded to eight calls, including a 23-foot travel trailer fire at the intersection of Morgan and Reservation roads that it battled together with Fort Hall, Farnsworth said.
The NBCFD services an 86-square-mile area that includes the Buckskin and Pocatello Creek areas to the east and the Trail Creek area to the west of Pocatello as well as the region between Chubbuck and Fort Hall. All 35 volunteer firefighters work on-call in three different platoons on a weekly rotating schedule to provide fire protection service for about 2,500 county residents, Farnsworth estimates, though there is no census data to rely on, he added.
“Each platoon, A, B and C, are the guys that are delegated to coming in during that week,” Farnsworth said. “If it’s something big, we’ll call the other platoons in as well, but each platoon that’s on for the week are the first ones out.”
A former Chubbuck firefighter of nine years, six years in a paid, on-call capacity and three years full time, Farnsworth is the only salaried employee of the department, earning about $56,000 per year. The department’s only part-time employee is Mark Brood, the assistant chief and training officer. Brood is a veteran firefighter of 25 years who spent time in Washington state and then with Farnsworth at Chubbuck before joining the NBCFD.
Brood has been integral in training the nearly three dozen volunteer firefighters, who have collectively prepared for more hours in the last quarter than a similar-sized volunteer department does annually, Brood said.
“We have 156 total training hours for 35 guys,” he said. “Your average volunteer firefighter training run is about 146 hours per year and we did that in four months. These guys have really stepped up.”
Knowing how to safely douse a wildfire or extinguish a raging home inferno is critical information for firefighters, but that wisdom can’t be put to good use without the proper equipment and gear. Farnsworth said the district had known for a while that it would need its own department, and that voters passing a levy increase allowed them to acquire the tools to do the job right.
“When the commissioners decided that we needed to create our own fire department from the district, whether the levy passed or not, we knew that was going to happen,” Farnsworth said. “Having the levy allowed us to get the equipment that we needed to put together an actual fire department.”
Around the same time its contract ended with Chubbuck, the NBCFD entered into a purchase agreement for a large property at 444 E. Chubbuck Road with Ron Dykman of Dykman Construction to house its fire department. The 2-acre lot has a massive three-bay garage that will serve as the fire house, a smaller garage for vehicle storage, about an acre of empty training space and a single-family home on the roadside edge of the property.
Farnsworth said the structures on the property are insulated and heated and the single-family home could be rented out to provide additional income for the district or used for firefighters sleeping and living quarters once the property is fully paid for.
Initially listed at over $620,000, the NBCFD agreed to purchase the property for $500,000, with the first payment of $250,000 due on January 30, 2020 and the final payment of $250,000 due on June 30, 2021.
“This building wasn’t in our first plans by any means, as we were hoping for something on the north end of the county,” Farnsworth said. “But Ron Dykman offered us this building at a really great rate. Considering it’s right in the center of all three sections of our district, and we’re only about four blocks from the Chubbuck Fire Station where it has worked for the last 25 years, this was great. The location, price and the fact it was already built and ready for immediate use made this a lucrative place to establish our fire department.”
In terms of firefighting apparatuses, the fire department has secured two engines — one with a 1,000-gallon tank from Bonneville County and a 750-gallon tank truck from Pocatello — one 2019 light wildland brush truck and a 4,000-gallon water tender with a deployable drop-tank from Smithfield, Utah. A water tender truck allows a firefighter to deposit water from the tank affixed to the truck into what’s essentially a heavy-duty, portable swimming pool while the tender truck is refilled at the nearest hydrant or water source.
Moreover, the department has been fortunate to be on the receiving end of several donations, including a Jeep command vehicle gifted from Idaho Central Credit Union and a plethora of flame-retardant gear gifted from the Cascade and Northern Lake fire departments in North Idaho and from a department in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Starting up a brand new fire department has certainly not been as easy as rescuing a cat from a tree, as the department has experienced a few knowledge bumps understanding the logistics of running a department.
“We’ve had to work with Bannock County dispatch to coordinate response efforts, which has involved a bit of a learning curve,” Farnsworth said. “They dispatch for other rural Bannock County fire districts, but those areas don’t have near the call volume we have. We can’t say enough about the job they are doing over there to work all the kinks out.”
And breaking free from the familiarity of operating as a contracted unit under Chubbuck’s authority for the last 25 has years has also not been immune to understandable resistance.
“We’ve had some growing pains, which is expected,” Farnsworth said. “We have a great relationship with Pocatello and Fort Hall, but with Chubbuck we are still working some things out. The way I see it, the fact that we are right here, Chubbuck just doubled the fire trucks they can deploy in an emergency.”
With an expedited process that has involved both triumph and unique roadblocks, Farnsworth is pleased with the direction of the new department and the bright future of the unit. Regardless of any disagreements or relationships in need of mending, Farnsworth and the North Bannock County Fire Department are ready to serve the unincorporated areas of the county.
“Whether it’s here with our guys at the fire department, or working with other agencies, Mrs. Smith at the end of the road, that’s what’s important,” Farnsworth said. “We don’t care whose fire it is, let’s get everybody on it, work together and we can figure out the dollar signs afterwards. Let’s just take care of the customer — that’s the ultimate top priority.”