SHERIDAN — Sheridan County should not consolidate fire districts or create one large fire department for the entire county, according to McGrath Consulting Group consultant Justin Heim, who presented the findings from the inter-district fire services study in Sheridan County to Sheridan City Council and Sheridan County Commission members Oct. 1 and 2. Instead, Heim suggested several adjustments to the current departments, including increased workforce, better documentation and training to alleviate reliance on the Sheridan Fire-Rescue Department.
The fire study was initiated by the city of Sheridan in contract negotiations with the local firefighter union to provide an independent review of the services across the county. All but Big Horn and Story fire districts and Rocky Mountain Ambulance contributed financially and with documentation. The city of Sheridan committed $20,000, the county contributed $5,000 and fire districts contributed $1,000 each.
Heim immediately addressed the issue of SFRD not following Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations for going on calls.
“In order to fight the fire, there has to be at least, at least, five people on the outside of the building,” Heim said. “Two people that are ready to go into the building to fight the fire, two people that are immediately available to rescue those two firefighters if something happens and somebody that’s in charge of the incident.”
Heim said SFRD does not initially meet that standard, and Sheridan City Council must consider the implications of that when a structure fire does occur.
“Until some other folks show up, Sheridan Fire-Rescue does not meet that OSHA standard,” Heim said. “The rural fire districts, depending on their staffing, if they’re at the station for training or something like that, they may.”
Goose Valley Fire Department Chief Bob Williams said he does not know how SFRD can start following OSHA standards without hiring more people. Williams and his crew are automatically paged when a structure fire occurs, allowing for four to eight more firefighters responding to the scene. But even having GVFD firefighters respond quickly remains an issue, as the department is volunteer-based and not only do firefighters have to leave their jobs and meet at the fire hall near the Sheridan County airport, but then they have to travel to the site of the fire.
Williams estimated that process taking anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, depending on where his crew members are at the time of the call.
Timing works well for SFRD within city limits, but as Sheridan continues to expand — especially north — Heim warned of the department’s response time slowing significantly with only one department. The Fire Protection Association Standards require response times to be four minutes anywhere within city limits 90 percent of the time.
“Do we meet that standard?” Heim said. “Absolutely not.”
Heim said SFRD does an effective job of responding and it’s no fault of the department’s staff members, but response time is something for the council to consider as city limits expand.
Overall, SFRD Fire Chief Gary Harnish appreciated the feedback and noted the suggestions and changes already taking place within the department.
“In the full document, there’s several changes that have already begun to take place and have even been going on for some time,” Harnish said.
Response times were based on a worst-case scenario, such as a significant structure fire in which the maximum number of firefighters is needed. However, the cut years ago in the department, in which the city did not replace positions, will need to be considered again. Ideally, Harnish would like to see the council pursue that avenue again, but he knows it is not likely in this budget year.
In the county, response time regulations are more relaxed, which proves positive for rural fire districts who have expansive areas of land to cover. Heim could not recommend complete consolidation of fire services in Sheridan, but he did recommend possibly consolidating Tongue River (Ranchester) and Dayton fire districts, as they compete for volunteers in a 6-mile radius.
The glaring issue Heim connected between the city and rural fire districts was the rural districts’ reliance on SFRD to respond to high-intensity calls like structure fires.
“Mutual aid has to be mutual,” Heim said. “What we found through the study is that the city of Sheridan seems to give a lot more mutual aid to the rest of the county than it receives.”
With extra workloads due to mutual aid, not meeting OSHA standards of number of respondents to a significant fire call and expanding city limits, SFRD also lacked middle management to help alleviate the work for and improve communication between the chief and three captains, one per shift. Adding more management would improve continuity among rural fire districts and SFRD, as well as help coordinate trainings for cost-sharing and safety purposes.
City council members and county commissioners will continue reviewing the complete, more than 150-page study findings and return to the fire districts with recommendations on how to move forward with the results.