Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
After holding a meeting with local firefighters to gather information on how to regulate fire protection in rural subdivisions, the Hill County Commission decided it needs more information. “We’re going to have to do a lot more studying,” said Mike Anderson, chair of the commission. The Hill County Commission met last week to start investigating what it should to do ensure new subdivisions in the county have adequate fire protection. It met with Dave Sheppard, chief of the Havre Fire Department, Cal Brown, chief of Rural Fire District #1, and several members of the Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department Wednesday to gather more information. Lon Ohm, secretary of the Bear Paw fire department, a volunteer company funded by donations only, said the topic was discussed heavily at the state volunteer firefighter convention in Chinook last week. “This isn’t an unusual situation. We’re kind of behind the curve here,” Ohm said. “Nobody really had any answers,” Ohm added. He told the group that the state fire marshal’s office is working on a new state fire code to address rural subdivisions, expected to be finished in 1 years. He said the firefighters would like to see the code include requiring adequate water supplies and fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers, in new subdivisions, but the state law prevents counties from having more stringent requirements than state code. Clay Vincent, Hill County planner, said that prevents counties from requiring some items such as sprinklers. “Counties can’t even suggest it because we can’t require it,” he said. Ohm, who has done contracting work in Washington state, said subdivisions there are required to have a water supply and a dry sprinkler system that is empty unless a fire starts, at which time the system automatically starts to suppress the fire. The systems typically cost $10,000 to $12,000, he said. County Commissioner Mike Wendland said “That’s Washington. We can’t even suggest it.” “Somehow it becomes a legality question,” Anderson said. Gary Gregoire, chief of the Bear Paw Volunteer Fire Department, asked if reduced insurance premiums wouldn’t offset the cost of the sprinklers. The group was unsure of the answer, and Anderson said the commission would start investigating that. Vincent said that requiring systems like Washington requires is something the counties should probably look at trying to push through the state legislature. The group discussed having automatic mutual aid agreements between the fire departments in the county, which Sheppard said already have aid agreements. The different organizations can call on other firefighting organizations for help, he said. The benefit of automatic aid would depend on the situation, he said. “It would work for some but not others,” Sheppard said. The group discussed the fact that the benefit of the automatic aid would depend on many factors including how far away the fire is and road conditions. “Then you need the water,” Bear Paw volunteer Jim Faber added. Gregoire pointed out that even with adequate response time and the proper equipment, the firefighters then have to be able to get to the fire. “A guy needs to have decent access,” he said. Ohm pointed out that even with access and water, Bear Paw’s equipment limits its ability to fight structure fires n it is designed to fight wildland fires, he said. If the Bear Paw volunteer department had a pumper truck it would be better able to fight structure fires, but then there is the problem of where to store the truck, he said. Where it ended up being stored might not be any closer to the fire than the Havre Fire Department. Gregoire said the current residents of rural Hill County don’t seem to have complaints about the fire coverage, but the problem will probably start as more new residents settle in the county. Sheppard agreed. Rural Montana is a remote area, and people who live in areas like Hill County understand the pros and cons, he said, but people moving in from other areas might not understand that. “I think you were right to get a jump on it because I think development is coming our way,” he told the commission.