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Wet Mountain Fire District seeks mill levy increase

Custer County voters have the opportunity to help those that help us in moments we need them most.

As was reported in the Tribune, The Wet Mountain Valley Fire Protection District (WMFPD) has requested voters approve two additional mills which would bring in some $186,403.72 to their budget, beginning fiscal year 2019.

“After 38 years of existence, we reached a point where we need to take the Fire Department to the next level. There are more homes, more people, more traffic and we have also gotten really engaged in our ISO rating,” stated Fire District Captain Dave Tonsing. ISO stands for the Insurance Service Office. They provide statistical information on risk.

Tonsing continued, “If we stay really tight with their requirements, we can serve our citizens within a five-mile radius of a substation.

“The ISO used to come in and be very adversarial. Now, they are very helpful. They are a support function now. If we pick their brains, they will tell us what we need to do. They want us to be as good as we possibly can be.” Tonsing reiterated that the ISO “wants a solid response with an appropriate truck and a lot of water at our fingertips.”

Tonsing stated that the WMFPD is no longer “just another rural fire department.” It has become like a lot of the other districts with full-time work. “The chief’s position even in the last six or seven years, has gotten busier and more demanding. The responsibility that is placed on that guy is huge.”

Scott Virden, firefighter and newly elected board member of the WMFPD spoke on the importance of accountability. “We have a good understanding of the day-to-day stuff that goes into making it work as a volunteer fire department. Being on the board, we can now look and say what do we need to accomplish the mission? A biggie for me now that as a board member, I look at the finances, I need day-to-day oversight happening, because it falls on the board. It’s always been volunteer with a small stipend. You can’t run a fire department like that at this level. This is where the idea for a paid fire chief position came about. We actually should have done that 10 years ago.

“People have expressed concern that we are building jobs around people. That’s really not the case. We are building that job and the training department. If whomever is in place doesn’t work out, we will find someone that does,” according to Virden.

“Management is the point. We can hold a lot more people accountable for everything they do.”

Tonsing added, “we have the infrastructure with 17 trucks and some satellite stations in place, but it isn’t getting the job done. There are still a lot of people that lie outside those five-mile radius crop circles that can’t get the benefit of ISO rating improvements.”

Tonsing stated that the WMFPD is able to cover the costs now, but isn’t able to serve the community the way they want to be served. “The community deserves better than a nine. We can pull that off if we spend some money and improve our water resources in different parts of the county.

“We could put another shed out in Hillside with a Class-A pumper. ISO likes that. It’s basically a big red firetruck.”

The WMFPD has just hired 15 new people. “We are so passionate about this because we can serve so many more people. We have a five-year plan and we are going to make it happen.” Tonsing continued.

“Grants are out there, but when you go to the grantors and they say, ‘well, in 38 years you’ve never gone to your taxpayers, why should we give you free money, when your taxpayers haven’t been asked to pay a little bit more.’ It’s a double-edged sword. Grant funding is starting to dry up. Now, we can go back to the grantors if the mill levy is approved and say look at our support,” Tonsing shared.

The ISO is also concerned about fire inspections. “Someday, we would like to have on the computer in our trucks information on a commercial building that we can look at onsite. . . We really need to be doing more fire inspections. . . I think there are 140 businesses on Main Street. We really would like to start doing them for free. This will not only make the commercial areas more safe, it will hopefully drop their insurance. It’s not a guarantee, but, that’s our endgame here.
“Our goals are to make the community safer so we don’t need to fight as many fires and public education is key, but working with the school, and doing things around town to bring peoples’ awareness up. It’s more than just ‘Stop, drop, and roll.’”

Tonsing and Virden want the community to know that “this is a really exciting time and we are on the cusp of bring the District up to the next level.”

The District also needs a certified mechanic in place that is able to service the more complex firefighting apparatus.
Virden is also committed to getting a two person paid team on shift that can respond to calls quickly. “I’m going to get this done. Staffing will take twice the money next year than this year. I’m fairly confident that we will get this covered. It’s a huge budget item for sure.”

Fire Chief Shy has over 35 years of experience with the WMFPD. “When I envisioned someone that has experience and that could see us through a transition like this, I thought of Kit Shy,” Virden said. “But, we are a business and if he doesn’t fit the bill in a few years, we will find someone that does. He was willing to volunteer his time for very little money. He needs to be recognized for that. Now, he will be paid for 30-hours a week. Shift pay is also very important. I don’t think we will need a paid fire department for at least another 10 years. Because of all of Dave’s hard work in recruiting, we have some dedicated individuals that show up to help. This county is full of people that want to serve.”

The District is also seeing the types of calls they receive changing. They are seeing more carbon monoxide calls. Virden continued, “These calls typically come in during the early morning hours and they need to rouse people awake to go out and tell people to leave because of those alerts. If they have firefighters on shift, and they get paid it will incentivize them a little more as well. These calls are less urgent and less exciting.”

Tonsing stated that in the last five years calls have gone from 113 to 240 calls a year. “It’s an increase of about 20 percent every year.”

Virden expressed that they also assist EMS quite a bit on some of their calls. “We are always available to lend our support. If a helicopter needs to land, we are generally there. There has been an increase in Flight for Life calls as well. The county is changing.”

When you sit at the table with your cup of coffee and ballot, or walk into the voting booth between now and November 6, consider giving your vote of confidence to the WMFPD. They need your help to continue providing the service the district expects and deserves.

– Tracy Ballard

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