Gillette, Campbell County work together to provide more effective fire service

GILLETTE — It’s a new era for the Campbell County Fire Department, as well as for the joint powers fire board that governs it.

Now that the city council and county commission are equal funding partners for the fire department, firefighters will be able to more effectively respond to wildfires, house fires, traffic accidents and any other number of incidents that happen throughout the year.

The city council and county commission, along with Wright, approved an amendment to the joint powers fire agreement this summer, which included changes in funding and the makeup of the board.

In this new fiscal year, which started Friday, both the city and the county will pay 49% of the department’s operating costs, with Wright taking care of 2%. 

The two already pay an equal amount — 49.5% — of the department’s capital budget and vehicle depreciation.

With the city matching the county on funding, the two entities will have equal representation on the board.

It allows the Fire Department to fully staff Station 3, which is on the southern end of Gillette, down the road from Thunder Basin High School.

Fire Chief Jeff Bender called this “a significant step forward,” and he said this will get the department to “80% of our need.”

The recruiting process has begun, but it’s going to take some time, said Deputy Chief J.R. Fox. The plan is to promote current firefighters and hire new ones to take their place, and he said the goal is to have Station 3 fully staffed by early fall.

Each crew is made up of three people: a captain, an engineer and a firefighter. Right now, one crew is at Station 3 for 40 hours a week. Six more people will give that fire station full-time staffing. A pumper, a tender and a wildland engine will be stationed there.

“This will put us much more in alignment with more normal response times,” Bender said.

When this is done, homes on the south end of Gillette should see a 50% decrease in response times, Fox said. And firefighters at Station 3 can respond to Wright about six to eight minutes quicker than from Station 1.

And in the line of firefighting, every minute counts.

It also will allow the fire department to better handle multiple calls. Bender said about 40% of the time, the department is dealing with more than one incident, and it’s been a struggle to respond effectively.  This has occasionally led to calls getting dropped.

In the fall, the department should be able to run a couple of calls deep with no problem, Bender said.

It’s a far cry from just six years ago, when the county threatened to dissolve the joint powers fire agreement because commissioners didn’t think the city was paying its fair share, especially since the fire department was responding to more calls within city limits than out in the county.

Councilman Tim Carsrud, the lone current member of the city council who was there during 2016, said the main cause of the issues back then was a lack of communication.

“I just think it was a communication deal,” he said. “I just feel, once we all sat down and talked, we weren’t that far apart on expectations.”

At the time, the breakdown on operation funding was 79% county, 20% city and 1% Wright. The city argued that the agreement was fair, because the city is part of the county.

The two eventually agreed to split capital expenses and increase the city’s operation funding over a five-year span, going from 20% to 40%.

“When that was being discussed, if you put pen to paper, neither side could afford to do this on their own, have their own separate fire department,” Carsrud said. “So it benefited everybody, all the citizens of Gillette and Campbell County and Wright that we all work together and be one fire department.”

Commission Chairman Del Shelstad was on the fire board when a study of the fire department was commissioned to determine what its staffing levels needed to be going forward. One recommendation was getting Station 3 to be a full-time station, because response times to the south end of Gillette were less than ideal.

He said while the county was in favor of this, it all depended on whether the city would be willing to step up, and he had his doubts.

“That was really something that we needed to do for our community. It needed to happen,” Shelstad said.

This year, when the time came to revisit the joint powers agreement, the city stepped up.

“I am proud to be a part of where this fire department is at now, especially (considering) where we were six years ago,” Carsrud said. “That was a tough time.”

The hiring of city administrator Hyun Kim has been huge in helping with the communication between the city and county, Shelstad said.

“I think the cultural change that’s happened since Mr. Kim’s been at the city has changed that whole dynamic on how our joint powers work,” he said.

He also credited Bender for changing the culture at the fire department when he was hired in 2019.

Carsrud said that the current city council went into this with a different mindset than the council of six years ago.

“The more we talked about it, the more it just seemed like it was time that we stepped up, and did a little bit more than what we were doing before,” Carsrud said. “We have a city administrator that definitely puts police and fire as a top priority, and he was definitely wanting us to have that.”

He added that in his nine years on city council, this latest joint powers agreement is one of his proudest moments. 

Instead of comparing numbers on who has more calls or the bigger fires, it’s all about providing effective fire service to the community, regardless of boundary lines.

“It just goes to show, even if you feel like you’re miles apart on issues, if everybody just tells their ideas, opens their mind and eyes and heart to other people, it can go a long way,” he said.