Havre Firefighter Concerns Addressed at Safety Committee Meeting

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HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The City of Havre’s Safety Committee convened for a Special Meeting on Monday morning to discuss workplace safety concerns that have been brought forward by employees with the Havre Fire Department.

Mayor Doug Kaercher said that a work plan on these issues is being finished up, and that Keith Cron of Hygienics LLC out of Great Falls will be coming to Havre soon to test the Havre City Complex for the presence of carcinogens such as diesel exhaust, lead and asbestos.

Once testing is completed, Kaercher says they will have a better idea of possible exposures.

“We don’t know what the exposure is, whether there is any exposure or whether it’s severe. We have no way of knowing until we get that complete test done,” said Kaercher.

Fire Chief Mel Paulson said that without the evaluation being completed, there is not much that can be done now. He said he appreciates the city moving forward with addressing these concerns.

“I think that the information just that we got today – with who, what, when, where – is going to be very beneficial,” said Paulson.

Regarding concerns of lead in the air due to poor ventilation in the shooting range, Kaercher and Public Works Director Dave Peterson said the ventilator was checked after concerns were brought up in 2018. Kaercher says the system did work at that time, as the VFW had put in an exhaust system, but at some point, it stopped working. Kaercher said it is clear there is lead presence, but it is unclear what the level of exposure is.

“There’s certainly still the presence of lead. We don’t know from (a previous) sampling, how severe the exposure is. The sampling was high, but that doesn’t really tell you what type of exposure you have,” said Kaercher.

Effective immediately, the shooting range in the basement has been permanently shut down.

“The shooting range will be completely taken out at some point. Whether the exposure is high or low, the shooting range will no longer be used,” said Kaercher.

Kaercher says the city has applied for a Brownfields cleanup grant for a change of use. He says the space is more beneficial for the city than a shooting range, as police do not use the range.

Peterson says a new motor was recently put into the ventilator in the shooting range, but it still hasn’t been working properly, so an electrician will be looking into it.

As for the ambulance that is now over 20 years old, Fire Chief Mel Paulson says it has been taken completely out of service due to liability concerns. He says he has taken it to a handful of shops in the area, but they have been unable to find long-term fixes.

“It’s just become so unreliable. I can’t take a liability with people. It’s broken down too many times,” said Paulson.

This means that for now, the Havre Fire Department is down to two working ambulances. They will no longer be doing patient transfers to Great Falls. Instead, transports will have to come from facilities in Cut Bank or Great Falls. In critical situations, transports will continue to be done by helicopter.

“From my understanding, Great Falls is tough to get up here. They struggle with staffing and are busy. Glacier (in Cut Bank) can come over, but you’re looking at getting somebody to Great Falls for definitive care, two hours vs. five. And as a patient, sometimes that’s pretty tough,” said Paulson. “That’s the alternative right now.”

The length of time Havre will be down to two working ambulances is unclear. If the city were to order a new ambulance, it would take at least 18 months to arrive. In the meantime, the city will be looking into the possibility of continuing to try and fix the ambulance, or to renting an ambulance.

Kaercher was skeptical of the potential of renting an ambulance, saying it could take the money away from getting a new ambulance.

“It doesn’t seem feasible to me,” said Kaercher. “Those are dollars going out the door that is just going to extend that period out. It’s not like we can put the $80,000 towards an ambulance and rent another ambulance.”

Kaercher said the city has set aside over $100,000 for a new ambulance and needs another $80,000, which could come from a FEMA grant they have applied for.

“If that comes through, we’ll certainly go forward with a new ambulance,” said Kaercher. “If it doesn’t come through, we’ll be looking at what the cost of everything else is right now. Not only that, but probably every (Capital Improvement Project) will be put on hold until we figure out what the impact is and where our resources are for the city.”

Paulson said it is important Havre has a working third ambulance, as call volumes continue to be up across the board. He estimates that they transfer patients to Great Falls about 150 times a year.

One of the two working ambulances is from 2007 and is potentially nearing the end of its useful life, so that one may need to be replaced as well in the coming years.

The city has had a working plan to replace an ambulance every five years, and the oldest one was supposed to be replaced this year, but the ordering of a new ambulance was put on hold in part due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Paulson.

A report presented in early December 2021 by Paulson showed call volumes up 18 percent over 2020 and up 38 percent from 2016. Paulson did not have data available for 2022 but says calls have continued to come in at a high rate, adding that there are multiple reasons for the increase.

“If you had a rest home or something move into town, it would be kind of easy to tell. But realistically, they are all over. We have of course, some fentanyl calls and some overdose calls, those are on the rise, but not 38 percent. So really, when you look at that 38 percent, it’s all over the road. It’s traumas, it’s seizures, it’s overdoses, it’s splotchy. We don’t have a spike anywhere in one particular area,” said Paulson.

Funding for fixes to firefighters concerns will be a priority for the city as they work on their budget, according to Kaercher.

“If (the sampling) comes back and it’s relatively benign, (then) we’ll continue to put together a work plan for it to get it done. It buys us some time if it’s rather benign to put together the money over a period of time rather than immediately,” Kaercher said when speaking about potential fixes to the diesel exhaust concerns. “Because immediate remedy for these are going to take monies away from other capital projects that we have.”

Kaercher said if the sampling shows there is a risk to employees, they will put “as much effort as we can” to remedying the issue.

Kaercher said he will make the City Council aware of the work plan as soon as it is completed.

The two Councilors on the Safety Committee, Chair Josh Miller and Denise Brewer, say they plan to have the work plan discussed at a Council meeting.

“I don’t have any idea how much these things cost. But I think it’s something just that has to be done. (The city) took care of it in 2018 when you saw a problem, and that’s just all we’re here to do again,” said Brewer.

Kaercher said current and former employees concerned they may have health issues related to working for the city are encouraged to file a workers’ compensation claim.

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