HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – In a heated and emotional emergency meeting on Wednesday evening, the City of Havre and Rural Fire District 1 agreed to a two-week extension as they work to sort out a contract on fire suppression and code enforcement.
The Havre Fire Department will now respond to fire calls in Rural Fire 1 through 11:59 PM on September 15th. This comes after a 17-hour lapse in coverage for the District, which includes over 1,000 structures, that began at midnight Wednesday morning and concluded during the meeting.
“This whole day right now, you guys have got people’s lives on the line. There’s people in rural 1 who’s homes, if there’s a fire and somebody’s trapped, their lives depend on the emergency services doing their jobs,” Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Chief Josh Bebee said near the start of the meeting. “And I don’t know how we end this crap, but it needs to be ended. We need to figure this out because I can’t risk putting my crew, and my crew’s lives and their families in any danger over doing something that we can’t do just because there is nobody to do it.”
During the lapse, local rural fire departments were responsible for any fire calls within the District through a mutual aid agreement.
“We’re wildland. We’re not structure,” said Bebee. “Anytime you’re involving structure, whether it’s a natural gas leak, we are not equipped to go and check it out. We are not equipped to enter that building. We are not trained to do any of that. When it comes to even a house on fire, a structure on fire, we are not equipped, we are not trained to do any of that. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to send or ask of any of my guys to ever go into a structure when it is unsafe to do and we are not trained and equipped to do.”
During the two weeks, Hill County DES Coordinator Amanda Frickel and Kremlin Fire Chief Kody Peterson will voluntarily provide enforcement within the District.
Frickel’s insistence on helping out came after she expressed disappointment and frustration over how local leaders put hundreds of people’s lives and property in danger.
“This is an unimaginable burden for the rural fire departments. It has been said and I completely support every one of the chiefs that have just spoken about how this is not their responsibility. They have been amazing and last night’s call at the last minute, stepping up and offering assistance for us. That is great. So I just definitely want to acknowledge how awesome that Hill County really does with our people.”
Just hours before the agreement expired, Frickel says there was a fire call on Pork Chop Hill, which is in rural fire 1 and the Havre Fire Department responded to. This came at around the same time as Frickel was given just a few hours notice that the current suppression agreement would not be extended, putting her on the spot to find a solution on extremely short notice.
“I really want to point out how disheartening and kind of how not okay this happened last night. This is not professional at all. And despite how the agreement did not get met, how this happened last night was definitely not professional in any matter at all. And I’m clearly stating my opinion on that.”
Havre Mayor Tim Solomon is asking that the Board agree to some form of local enforcement of fire codes in the District. He says he never received a request for an extension from the Board this week, and says as soon as he was alerted by the Board’s attorney that they were not requesting an extension, he contacted the dispatch centers to tell them to find a backup plan before Wednesday night’s deadline.
“It’s been the same thing all along – we want some enforcement,” Solomon told the Board. “Naming a chief would take care of (the impasse). We’ve named numerous people that could do that job if you want to just name them instead of naming a chief. We’ve gone through that. We’ve been on the one subject all along. That’s all we’ve asked be added to (the terminated) contract. If you agree that that’s the direction you’re going and you want to name a chief, you’d have a contract and we’ve been moving forward with that. And all along, it doesn’t do a whole lot of research to prove that. You keep dragging this out and ignoring the problem for the citizens out there. At some point, it’s got to come to an end and you have to take action on it.”
Options include, but are not limited to, having the Rural Fire 1 Board contract the Havre Fire Department for suppression or finding someone else willing to perform the inspection duties of a fire chief.
“What are you going to come to terms with, because you can’t just leave this on the rural fire departments for now and hope for something in the next few months,” Frickel asked Solomon. “That’s not fair and that’s not right and that’s not how this should’ve been done. So if you’re just saying, Mr. Solomon, that now you’ve wanted a fire chief and you guys can come to terms on an agreement, then let’s find a fire chief if that’s all it is going to take. This should have never gone this way. How it happened is not okay. It’s reckless and it’s dangerous to leave an entire district unprotected and expect other people to do the job that they didn’t sign up for.”
Rural Fire 1 currently has enough funds to hire a fire chief for several years due to the recent sale of a bus barn, but future funds may have to be provided through levies or a change in the reception of funding, as they only receive minimal funds from taxes from property owners in the District.
Solomon says he is going to come up with a cost estimate for how much the city would charge for code enforcement, and he will bring that back to the Board within the next few days.
“I’m not convinced that chief is the way to go yet, but I will sit down and make a very good faith effort to try and get this done,” said Board Chair Steven Jamruszka.
At least for now, fire calls from Rural Fire 1 to dispatch will be directed to the Havre Fire Department.
“As public safety answering points, 9-1-1 centers, the Chief of Police and the Sheriff need to know who to call when there’s a fire in Rural Fire 1,” said Hill County Sheriff Jamie Ross. “We need somebody to answer the phone and protect the public and protect the structures and protect the people. That’s what we need.”
And if an agreement is not reached in two weeks, Ross stressed that it is crucial his department and Havre Police remain in the loop.
“Both centers need a point of contact to call if there is a fire in Rural Fire 1,” Ross said. “Because that didn’t happen last time And I wasn’t too pleased last night when I spent two-and-a-half-hours on the phone trying to figure it out.”
The story above is from after the meeting and has been updated. The story below is from before the emergency meeting:
HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The fire suppression agreement between the City of Havre and Rural Fire District 1 has come to an end.
Mayor Tim Solomon says that the deadline passed at the end of August without a new agreement or an extension of the current agreement.
Solomon says the District Board did not ask for another extension and failed to meet the City’s request to appoint a fire chief to enforce fire codes in the District, and that continued “non-action” from the Board has him “worried.”
Solomon says the city remains concerned that the lack of enforcement of codes in the District could put first responders at risk.
Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Amanda Frickel says that people and property in Rural Fire 1 will continue to be protected due to mutual aid agreements with the Kremlin, Bear Paw and Wild Horse Rural Fire Departments.
Now that the agreement has expired, 911 calls to dispatch from Rural Fire 1 will be referred back to Commissioner Mark Peterson and Frickel, who serves as the fire warden. The County would then invoke mutual aid and request a response from the nearest volunteer fire department.
Solomon says that the Havre Fire Department does not have a mutual aid agreement with Rural Fire 1.
Frickel says the County Commission, Rural Fire 1 Board and the City need to come together to find a resolution to this ongoing conflict, because rural fire departments do not have the experience, qualifications, or equipment to fight structure fires and evacuate buildings.
Frickel says that an Emergency meeting will be called at 4 PM on September 1st at the Commissioner’s Office at the Courthouse in an attempt to rectify the situation.
The Rural Fire 1 Board is scheduled to meet again on September 14th at 11 AM in the Timmons Room of the Hill County Courthouse.
Rural Fire District 1 is essentially a ring around Havre in which the Havre Fire Department had provided services for several decades.
Rural Fire 1 Board Chair Steven Jamruszka did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Stay tuned to New Media Broadcasters for updates.