A report from the chief

An uptick in interest, ambulance fees and a compensation negotiation
“We have changed in three or four years time from struggle, struggle, struggle to having the problem of picking the best of the lot of people.”—Big Sky Fire Chief Bill Farhat

The monthly Big Sky Fire Department board of directors meeting began with a few video clips. The first was the department’s firefighters demonstrating for a group of Eagle Mount kids how to gear up. The goal is to have all the gear on, including the final piece—gloves—in a minute. In Chief Bill Farhat’s opinion, they did well.

     The second was a clip of the team pushing its brand-new fire engine into the garage—a tradition that dates back to when engines were pulled by horses. 

     “I had to explain to a number of people that the truck did not break down,” Farhat said, laughing.

       In June, Farhat attended the annual Montana Firefighter Testing Consortium in Great Falls. It’s an event that allows new firefighters to qualify for the job, and when they register, the prospective firefighters note which department they’re interested in. 

     BSFD has historically been second or third from the bottom on that list, “Because people don’t want to try to financially make it work (in Big Sky),” Chief Farhat said. However, this year, Missoula and Bozeman tied for the top choice at 117 interested candidates, and Big Sky came in second. “We have never had that kind of interest.”

     Last year the consortium resulted in 69 applications to the BSFD. Farhat is hoping it’s higher than that this year. 

     “We’ve had a ton of people coming to do ridealongs, calling us, asking questions, so we have changed in three or four years time from struggle, struggle, struggle to having the problem of picking the best of the lot of people, and I am excited to say that,” added Farhat. “But it’s not going to be easy.”

     At each board meeting, Farhat goes over the prior month’s incidents and noteworthy numbers. May 2018, a quiet month for the department, saw 30 emergency incidents—up 11 percent from the year before. The department’s fiscal year ended in June, and 

incidents had already exceeded 800 by the end of May. 

     Emergencies equal income for the department, especially when ambulance transports come into play. Non-residents pay more than residents for the ride and care, and in May more than $26,000 was generated for the department in ambulance billing—up 67 percent from May 2017.

     Looking ahead to the next fiscal year, Chief Farhat proposed, rather than a salary increase, that the board approve a few perks for the department’s leader. He compared salaries and perks from other departments, laughing at one that permits its chief to be unavailable from Friday at 5 p.m. to early Monday morning. 

     “That is not a good thing, that is worrisome to me,” Farhat said.

     Perks Farhat proposed included having personal use of his work computer, as well as his work vehicle, and an up in vacation days to a total of 24 for the year. 

     The board considered each request thoughtfully, approving them after lengthy discussion about how far the chief could take the vehicle—all of Montana and a 100-mile radius of Big Sky was agreed upon. 

     “It does benefit me financially, and it’s much easier than giving me a raise,” Farhat said, thanking the board. “And it will help me do my job better.”

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