New engines rolling at Great Falls Fire Rescue

Two new fire engines hit the streets of Great Falls in March and a third engine is expected to arrive by the end of the month at Great Falls Fire Rescue. 

Two of those engines were included in last year’s budget and last month, the City Commission approved the purchase of the third engine, which was a demonstration model, for $411,375. The cost of a new model would be about $650,000, according to city data. 

When that third engine arrived, the department will be able to retire the last of the yellow engines, a 1989 Ford L-9000, which has a number of functional issues, according to both GFFR and the city’s vehicle maintenance supervisor. 

“For the first time in a long time, we have trucks younger than the guys driving them,” Hester said. 

Now, the oldest truck in the GFFR inventory is from 1996. 

The department has also replaced the ambulance that was purchased used in 2006 and added a new hazmat truck and a brush truck. 

After last summer’s Vinyard fire, GFFR and other city officials realized the city edge is truly an wildland-urban interface creating additional challenges for firefighting. 

The brush truck allows them to “pump and roll,” a beneficial capability when responding to grass fires and preventing them from becoming major events like the Vinyard fire, Hester said. The other engines at GFFR are designed for structure fires and must be parked before water will flow.

Commissioners have focused on public safety over the last few years and recent budget additions have included a deputy fire marshal, two firefighters, two dispatchers, four police officers when a federal grant ended in 2014 and three other police officers in the last two budgets. The city also approved building improvements at the dispatch center and fire stations and a grant match for new self contained breathing apparatus for firefighters. 

“A huge dent has been made in the fire department,” City Manager Greg Doyon said of funding needs at GFFR.

But staffing concerns remain at both GFFR and the Great Falls Police Department.

“Our equipment needs are met for the time being,” Hester said, but the department is turning its focus to staffing needs in this year’s budget and requesting six new firefighter positions. 

That would allow two additional firefighters per shift and Hester is hoping to create a new unit based out of Station 1 to take all non-emergent calls in the city and leaving the fire engine in the district available for emergency calls. 

The new unit would decrease response times by a minimum of 11 percent on average, Hester said, and leave two additional firefighters available for working fires. 

There are fewer fires in the city and the vast majority of their calls are medical, but Hester said the department has never been staffed well enough not to take fire engines on medical calls. Otherwise, if there was a fire while they’re on a medical call, they’d have to return to home station, change vehicles and then respond to the fire. That takes time and reduces chances of saving lives and property, said Hester, who believes the fifth unit would also improve response times since it would allow the fire engines to stay in service in their districts versus covering for an engine on a medical call.

Those non-emergent calls also interrupt training critical to a firefighter’s ability to properly do their jobs and keep themselves safe, Hester said. 

Hester is also asking for funding to begin replacing their portable radios, which cost about $5,000 a piece.

Parts are no longer available for the model in use at GFFR and they need to replace 20 radios in the near future, Hester said.

“That’s a priority. It’s not a crisis yet, but it sure could be,” Hester said. “I’m trying to avoid that.”

Hester has also developed a leadership team at GFFR to formalize the department’s strategic planning. That team includes Hester, the assistant chief for operations, the fire marshal and deputy fire marshal, training officer, battalion chiefs, administrative assistant and the city’s emergency planner. 

That team has done customer based analysis and found some shortfalls that they’re working to address internally and also through requests to the City Commission. 

The staffing requests in the budget have grown out of that analysis.

City growth has lengthened response times based on the current location of fire stations and GFFR is planning to conduct a study for future station placement.

Among other goals in the GFFR strategic plan are:

  • to have 24 paramedics on shift within the next three years to provide advanced life support coverage on all apparatus at all times;
  • assign two additional personnel to the fire prevention bureau to take the inspection load off the engine companies and refine the fire investigation process and have three fire investigators per shift; and
  • adjust the department rank structure to better serve the community.