Helena plans fire service review as response times get longer

Helena Fire Response
Posted at 6:51 PM, Mar 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-19 20:51:46-04

HELENA — Helena leaders are planning to take a deeper look this year at how the city’s fire and emergency services operate, and what improvements could be made.

Over the next year, the city is planning to work with stakeholders on revising 2006 and 2008 fire service reviews. The discussions will cover things like wildland-urban interface issues, interlocal agreements and how to handle services in areas being annexed into the city.

“We need to have this analysis to find out what it is that we’re doing, what needs to be revised, and then implement better systems,” said city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk.

However, Harlow-Schalk says the main impetus for the review was concern was data showing it’s taking the Helena Fire Department longer to respond to fire and medical calls. During an administrative meeting this week, city staff presented a report to the Helena City Commission, providing more details about HFD response times.

The report pointed to a standard from the National Fire Protection Association, which calls for response times to be an average of 5 minutes for medical calls and 5 minutes, 20 seconds for fire calls. Data shows Helena was averaging 4 minutes, 26 seconds and 5 minutes, 21 seconds, respectively, in 2010. By 2020, those times had risen to 5 minutes, 59 seconds and 6 minutes, 38 seconds.

Response times were longer in some areas of the city: north of the railroad tracks, around the Helena Regional Airport and on the west side. The report projects the average will rise another 30 seconds or more by 2025.

Harlow-Schalk believes annexations, population growth within the city limits and the rising number of people in the rest of the Helena Valley who work or do business in the city have all played a role.

“That burden onto this community does show in response time – more traffic, more distance away from locations for our firefighters to have to travel,” she said.

One possible suggestion for addressing the issue could be the addition of a third fire station, most likely on the city’s north side. The 2008 study said a new station would likely be needed within five years. However, Harlow-Schalk said the city needs better information before making that kind of decision, and the review process should help with that.

“Today, I wouldn’t know if we still need that station, because our data is so out of date,” she said. “I think there’s plenty of information that’s just not current, and we need to do a better job of getting that up to date before we move any further into where to site one, what it looks like, how much it costs.”

Harlow-Schalk said the response time data may not be exact because the times are recorded manually by dispatchers.

The stakeholder discussions are set to begin in the coming months. Harlow-Schalk hopes to have recommendations for the commission by March 2022.

You can find the report on the review process and response time information on the city website.