Sheridan Rural Fire Board approves compressor upgrade
During its annual meeting Feb. 21, the Sheridan Rural Fire Board approved a major upgrade to the department's firefighting equipment. The board approved an expenditure of up to $11,000 for the purchase of an air compressor and four air storage bottles. The expenditure is contingent on an equal contribution from Sheridan council toward the total cost of $22,000. The compressor and storage bottles are used to re-fill smaller oxygen tanks on firefighters' self-contained breathing apparatuses.
The board is composed of chair George Rich, secretary/treasurer Neil Barnoski, Bruce Peterson, Larry Melhoff and Max Moltich.
Sheridan Fire Chief Ben Hitchcock reported the department's current air compressor is obsolete and inoperative. The fire chief received two repair estimates between $2,500 and $3,000, but one technician advised the repair might not last. “He said that could fix it now, but it could fail again within a year,” said Hitchcock.
Sheridan fire department has been taking its air tanks to Virginia City for re-filling, where the fire department has a compatible compressor. The compressor in nearby Twin Bridges is incompatible with Sheridan's equipment. “We have been driving over to VC to fill our bottles, since this one is broke down,” said Hitchcock. “Twin Bridges – their bottles are different – they're still using 2,200-psi bottles.”
Deputy fire chief Rahn Abbott said a delay in refilling air tanks could hamper firefighting during a conflagration.
Hitchcock said the department owns 14 breathing apparatuses, which could be refilled quickly using the requested compressor and storage tanks.
Rich asked if grant money is available to buy a new compressor.
Hitchcock said he had applied for grant funds, but grant money is not readily available. “We've filled out all the paperwork and we've applied for five grants since the beginning of the year, since I started,” he said. “But a lot of those bigger grants, we won't know if we get them until next October.”
Madison County Director of Emergency Services Dustin Tetrault said grant funds are scarce and the process to obtain grant money is lengthy. Tetrault advised against seeking grants for an urgent need. “You're looking at a year out, and with something that important, I don't think you should wait,” he said.
Hitchcock said he had explored a bank loan for the purchase. Rich and Melhoff expressed reluctance to pay bank interest when the department has sufficient funds to purchase the items outright. “We do have funds available, that we could pay half of that, without going through the bank,” said Rich.
Board member Bruce Peterson moved to approve the $11,000 expenditure and the board voted 4-0 to approve, contingent on the matching contribution from Sheridan council. Melhoff was not present.
Two entities, Sheridan council and the rural fire board, oversee and fund the Sheridan Fire Department. Sheridan council oversees operations within the town; and the rural fire board oversees operations in the rural areas of the fire district, which encompasses an area from Mill Gulch Road in the south, to mile marker 38 on Highway 287 to the north, and westward to the Ruby River Road. The rural fire board receives 7.03 mills, approximately $18,218 per year, from Madison County.
The dual-funding arrangement has caused concern about cost-sharing between the town and the rural fire board.
Sheridan Mayor Bob Stump said the town pays for utilities and insurance for the department meeting room and two garages. Stump said he could not locate any type of written agreement between Sheridan council and the rural fire board. “It's not clear to me the roles and responsibilities between the town and the rural board for these shared facilities,” he said. “This room, the garage and the wildland garage out back are town facilities. We pay all the utilities and all the gas for the vehicles.”
The mayor said the arrangement is not fair to town residents. “Personally, I don't believe that's fair, that we pay $350 a month to heat a building out here that has two wildland trucks.”
Rich said the fire chief has managed the dual-funding arrangement in the past. “We have traditionally left that in the hands of the chief, and he has presented the bills to our secretary, in balance with what he's presenting to the town, and it's balanced out through the chief,” said Rich. “We just pay the bills as they are presented and the chief balances it, back and forth. We've never had to deal with any imbalance before. In the past, the fire chief worked out both budgets and made the fire department work with both budgets.”
Tetrault recommended the rural fire board complete a memorandum of understanding with the town this year. “It is kind of common throughout the state to have something like that,” he said.
George said the county commission should be consulted on any memorandum of agreement, and the board took no action on an agreement.
Tetrault noted many Montana communities have done away with the dual city-rural command structure.
Former Sheridan fire chief Kelly Elser noted Ennis had placed its fire department under the rural board, with the town providing funding and receiving fire services. “As in Ennis, there was Ennis rural and Ennis town, and Ennis rural built a nice facility out there and decided what they wanted and what the county wanted was just to make it Madison County Rural Fire Department,” he said. “The people of Ennis pay taxes and their fire department tax money goes to Madison Rural Fire Department.”
Rich recalled the town voted down a measure to consolidate the fire department under the rural board about two years ago.
Abbott reported an expenditure of $5,500 for new pagers was completed under a previous administration, in violation of the rural board's by-laws, which require board approval for expenditures more than $5,000. The deputy chief recommended the board obtain free legal training from a Montana non-profit, in order to prevent similar problems in the future.
Madison County Commissioner Dan Allhands said the county government is using the service and recommended the board use it too, because relevant laws have changed over the past several years. Rich volunteered to contact the group and set up a training event.
Tetrault advised the board its 7.03 mill rate is low, compared to other fire departments in the county. Allhands noted the county would pay off a loan for the Sheridan School this year, possibly creating an opportunity for the rural board to request a higher mill rate.
During his report, Hitchcock reported 10 firefighters and three junior firefighters currently in the department. The chief reported he had obtained four shipping containers, at no cost, which will be used to build a firefighting training facility.
Abbott reported 30 calls so far this year outside of town, 20 of which were for medevac landing zone coverage. The deputy chief said 450 man-hours of training has been conducted this year.
In other business, the rural board approved Hitchcock as the fire chief and re-appointed all officers in their current positions.