Just because there are no negative intentions and no real “bad guys” in the dilemma facing the North Bannock County Fire District doesn’t mean property owners are not confused, dismayed, and disgruntled. As of Oct. 1, 2019, they will have no fire suppression coverage unless an emergency election is called and two thirds of the NBCFD voters support raising the fire levy to the maximum allowable under Idaho law. If the levy increase passes, the NBCFD will need to form, equip and train its own volunteer fire department in fewer than four months.
The NBCFD has relied on “buying” fire suppression services from Chubbuck for a number of years. There is some controversy regarding whether or not NBCFD and Chubbuck property owners have been charged equitably for fire suppression. Currently, city property owners pay a combined fee for ambulance and fire/EMT services. NBCFD property owners pay separately for ambulance/EMT service and are seeking only fire suppression from Chubbuck.
Based on comments at public meetings and conversations with NBCFD property owners, the vast majority support a municipal provider charging everyone an equitable rate. The fundamental issue is whether NBCFD property tax payers can raise the funds needed to provide themselves with adequate fire service over the long haul through a reasonable levy rate given current Idaho rules and regulations, current and anticipated annexations, and projected increasing municipal contract costs.
With the current and anticipated growth in Chubbuck, its combination part-time, full-time Fire Department is no longer able to provide service to north Bannock County citizens without an increased service fee. Chubbuck is willing to renew the NBCFD contract on an annual basis, but at a significantly higher price to be re-negotiated each year. Additionally, NBCFD calls would be low priority and the NBCFD would need to provide 10 paid-per-call volunteers. It remains unclear from Mayor Kevin England’s letter to the NBCFD commissioners what level of training the 10 NBCFD volunteers would need to have, who would train them and at what cost.
Even if the NBCFD levies the maximum allowable, it cannot currently raise — or soon will likely be unable to raise — what it would cost to “buy” coverage from Pocatello, Chubbuck or Fort Hall. As higher density developments in the county are annexed by Chubbuck and Pocatello, the NBCFD will continue to lose levy revenue. This will further complicate the financial situation. While levy revenues dwindle, the cost of contracted fire suppression services will undoubtedly continue to rise. With few viable options on the table, the NBCFD commissioners have decided to establish a new NBCFD volunteer fire department by Oct. 1, according to the NBCFD website.
What is a bit of a mystery is how the situation got to “code red” stage with so little public warning. As reported at the May 21 public NBCFD meeting, indications of changes to the traditional Chubbuck contract surfaced the day after Thanksgiving 2018. Renewal discussions with Chubbuck took place early in 2019, but no one bird-dogged the city of Chubbuck administration, and the NBCFD commissioners did not receive a letter outlining the new coverage requirements and prices until mid-April. The Commission held an initial public information meeting on April 22. District property owners were notified via letter. However, it appears that not all property owners received notification.
Advance planning is always prudent when peoples’ lives and property are at stake. One wonders why conversations regarding contract renewal with Chubbuck were not proactively broached last summer with the November 2018 regular election in mind in case a problem developed. This would have allowed a much more reasonable negotiation, public information and problem-solving timeline. Elected officials cannot afford to make assumptions, rely on past traditions and forego advance planning when the well-being of their constituents is at stake.
The NBCFD is not alone is facing financial straits. Volunteer fire departments in Idaho and across the U.S. face daunting problems — tight funding, increased demand, decreasing numbers of volunteers, and outdated trucks and fire-fighting gear. According to a National Fire Department Registry report published in April, 2017, 56 percent of United States firefighters are volunteer and 12 percent are paid-per-call firefighters — meaning that 68 percent of our firefighters train and respond for little or no compensation.
Since 1984, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined by about 15 percent while calls have increased about 300 percent. Typically, many rural fire volunteers now commute to cities to work. City-based employers who do not rely on the volunteer departments for which these employees “work” are somewhat reluctant to allow flexible, on-demand release time to fight fires not directly affecting them or their immediate community. The NBCFD had 69 calls last year according to a report on KPVI television — meaning that an employer could potentially need to release a NBCFD volunteer firefighter 69 times in a 52-week period.
Volunteer fire departments have essentially the same equipment, protective gear and training needs as paid departments. As the science of fighting fires becomes more sophisticated and equipment more complex, the time required to train adequately continues to rise requiring volunteers to invest more time without compensation. As the climate continues to warm, the number of forest and grassland fires is predicted to continue to rise. It is difficult to see how increasing numbers of fires and decreasing numbers of volunteers lead to a stable long-term solution.
The NBCFD commissioners estimate starting the new volunteer fire department will require raising the levy rate to the maximum, collecting some “foregone” (allowable but uncollected) past levy money, and tapping the NBCFD reserve fund earmarked to cover the cost of a fire-retardant drop should one be required. The per-drop cost is about $35,000.
The volunteer fire department model has served our nation well since Benjamin Franklin established the first official volunteer department in December 1736 in Philadelphia. It may no longer be the most functional model based on evidence close to home and across the nation.
The NBCFD and its residents are faced with few alternatives and a difficult journey between now and Oct. 1. In addition to what is known, it is as yet unclear whether relying on a novice volunteer fire department will result in fire insurance rate spikes for NBCFD property owners.
Given the emotional distress and financial crunch NBCFD citizens and other Idaho county residents face as they consider future fire protection, it is high time for our Idaho Fire Marshal and state legislators to work for their constituents. They need to develop a comprehensive, long-range plan that puts people first. The lives and property of our non-municipal citizens must be protected in the event of fire.
Chris Stevens of Pocatello is a former not-for-profit corporation founder and director, school administrator, and rock and roll radio promotion director. Her current passions are landscaping, grassroots political organizing, and volunteering for socially and environmentally conscious organizations. She is a co-founder of the Gateway Coalition for Change and is proud to have settled in Idaho.