MISSOULA — The Missoula Rural Fire District (MRFD) was able to add 10 additional firefighters a couple years ago, thanks to a voter-approved mill levy. That means now, MRFD can have two paid firefighters on the clock, for every engine, 24/7.
"There's never enough money to go around to keep every public agency content," said Captain Eric Huleatt. But he said having more hands around helps the firefighters operate more safely, and more efficiently.
"It takes more than a guy or two to drive the engine, talk on the radio, make decisions, pull a hose line," he said. "We're constantly dealing with the fact that one engine can't handle the call that we're dispatched to with just two or three guys and one engine, so we just find ways to deal with that, and that again is common across the fire service."
So any extra help on a call, goes a long way. "We're not forced to take as many risks."
In turn, saving more lives. "We can get more done, in a shorter amount of time, which is obviously critical whether someone's having a heart attack, or someone's house is on fire," Huleatt said.
After the 2019 mill levy passed, MRFD went from 42 to 52 paid firefighters, and seven of the new members are Advanced Life Support (ALS), meaning they can give even more emergency medical services in the field.
So now, MRFD has 33 total ALS staff, with five more in training. "We could always use more, that's for sure," Huleatt noted.
Huleatt said this extra support from the mill levy couldn't have come at a better time. Call volume is up 20% for the rural firefighters compared to this time last year.
He says it's normal to see an increase year over year, but nothing like this, "not anywhere near 20%, historically."
Huleatt says calls increased during the pandemic, but also because more people are moving to the 90 square mile area they cover. "There's just more activity in the Missoula area."
MRFD also has about 12-to-20 volunteers at any given time, but they aren't always available.
"We do our best with however many guys we can get on that engine, whether it's the two that we are guaranteed, or if we have the opportunity to have three or four because we have a volunteer or two in the station, that's great.," Huleatt told MTN News. "We're just constantly making adjustments based on the amount of people available in addition to the two that are in the engine at all times."
Huleatt says MRFD just wants to thank the public.
"Depending on what we're asked to do and what we see it can wear on guys a little bit, but there's also so many good things that come with this job, and seeing their appreciation, especially when it comes to something big like passing a mill levy, that assists us with hiring more guys so we can do this job that we love better. Those good things certainly outweigh the tough times." - MRFD Capt. Eric Huleatt