The city of Helena has signed a contract with Fort Harrison to provide firefighting protection.
The city and fort came to terms on Sept. 20 for an approximately $317,000 annual contract for the Helena Fire Department to respond to fires and medical calls. Fort Harrison is located west of Helena, and the Montana National Guard trains on the grounds including live-fire exercises.
The neighboring VA medical facility has its own fire department and previously had the fire protection contract, but attorneys recommended that it be discontinued over jurisdictional issues with the state-controlled Fort Harrison, said Master Sgt. Mike Touchette, public affairs officer with the Montana National Guard.
Unlike mutual aid agreements between city and rural fire departments, which allow flexibility in response, the contract guarantees fire services at Fort Harrison, including structure and wildland protection as well as medical and hazardous material responses, Interim Fire Chief Ken Wood said.
“It’s a great opportunity for us and the fort,” he said. “We can provide pretty much an immediate response through dispatch. We have 24-hour staffing, seven days a week, every day of the year, we have staffing and can send people.”
Taking on fire responsibilities at Fort Harrison will include inspecting facilities and developing plans in case of a fire. Responding to a military installation comes with its share of considerations due to what may be on site, but Wood and Touchette do not believe it will be much different than responding to other locations that could include explosive or hazardous materials.
“That’s where the pre-fire inspections come into place,” Touchette said. “We’ll know they have small arms, munitions, ammunition in this storage facility, and if that goes up we need to know there are explosives or flammables.”
As a training base, much of Fort Harrison is dedicated to administration. When munitions are brought on base for training, they are typically taken directly to the range and isolated from the rest of the base, he said.
The National Guard also takes other precautions during training exercises, Touchette said. The fort has a fire station made up of guardsmen, but it is only staffed at high risk times such as drill periods.
In order to fulfill the contract the Helena Fire Department will use the funding to maintain its staffing levels and will “backfill” if firefighters respond to Fort Harrison, meaning other firefighters will be called in to maintain a nine-person crew.
“If there is anything that will keep us out there any length of time, we felt that we owed it to the rest of our protection area in the city of Helena to maintain that level of staffing we have,” Wood said.
Wood says this is the first fire protection contract he is aware of that the city has signed. The city has fire protection responsibilities on some county lands on Helena’s Westside, but those are largely an extension of city services into neighborhoods, he said.
Along with staffing and potentially additional overtime, Wood says vehicle and equipment maintenance will be an additional use of the funding.
The contract may be renewed annually for up to seven years, and then must be renegotiated in order to continue.