U.S. Forest Service firefighters prepare to battle the Caldor Fire on Aug. 31, 2021 in Meyers, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Public safety officials in Cascade County want to build a $20 million facility that would strengthen training for first responders in the Treasure State — and potentially beyond — and improve communication among different agencies during emergencies.
Great Falls Fire Department Chief Jeremy Jones spoke before the Local Government Interim Committee on Wednesday to propose the idea of converting the facility currently used for training by the fire department into an All Hazards Public Safety Training Facility that would be a centrally located resource for the state. The department currently uses 3.5 of the 9.5 acres it has access to through the city of Great Falls, he said.
Jones said fast-moving fires like those in Gibson Flats and Denton are examples of why there needs to be cross-training in departments across the state, with multiple teams arriving at a scene at once.
“If you read any after-action report across the nation and look at what is the killer of law enforcement and firefighters, a lot of it goes back down to communication,” he said, citing differences in lingo that could lead to ineffective communication.
He said it’s especially hard for volunteer-based fire departments, which comprise the vast majority of the departments in Cascade County.
Jones said phase one of the construction would include props and installation for a burn unit training facility using propane; a rescue training unit for Montana-specific scenarios like over-the-cliff and silo rescues; and a live ammunition shoot house for active shooter preparation for both fire departments and law enforcement officers to train.
The total ask from the state is $5 million for a total $20 million project, he said. He referenced the estimated $1.5 billion in budget surplus at the state level and said this would be a great use for a percentage of those funds.
“Montana has a surplus, and we want to give it back to Montanans,” Jones said.
He said this facility is not intended to replace training academies like the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, but to support the work they already do, and would be just north of their facility in Helena.
Phase two of the facility construction would include classrooms and dormitories estimated to cost $8.6 million, as well as training units to respond to refinery emergencies, hazardous material leaks and a trench rescue and entrapment unit and “live fire single units.”
One of the private partners Jones said was Calumet Specialty Products Partner LLC, which has a refinery in Great Falls. He said they have a fire brigade on site that GFFD will back up if needed, but that the company currently has to send firefighters to Texas to train, and said they’re interested in being able to train locally.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said nationwide staffing shortages in police and fire departments make it more important to cross-train public safety staff.
“Nobody is fully staffed anymore,” Slaughter said. “So the demand for us to be trained better is going to become critical, because of the simple fact that there’s a likely future that there will be fewer of us.”
Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, asked if there was a budget for maintenance, which Jones said would be covered in part by fees to use the facility. He said maintenance is currently conducted by the GFFD firefighters and that this facility would be included in the operating budget they already receive.
Esp also said there should be a plan for realistic user fees in advance of construction.
“If you’re going to build a $20 million facility, at some point, you need to have a significant commitment to cover those costs to maintain that facility”” Esp said.
Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, said he thought Jones was on the right track, but just needed to get the budget straight as Sen. Esp mentioned and get commitments of cooperation from other municipalities in the state.
Helena Democrat Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell asked if militia groups would be able to use the facility, to which Jones said that only recognized public safety agencies would be allowed to utilize it.
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