BSFD History in Brief

big sky firefighter up in a ladder with trees surrounding him
Stober Deptartment Photo
big sky heli flight assisting person into helicopter

Big Sky was a very rural and rugged area before commercial and residential development arrived.  Local residents were few but hardy and for the most part had taken care of themselves since this area was originally settled.  In 1971, community members formed what became the Gallatin Canyon Volunteer Fire Department.  Funding was scarce and their equipment was either donated or purchased used from other departments with money raised locally by department members.

In 1979, two Gallatin Canyon Rural Fire Districts were formed; one each for the Gallatin County and Madison County portions of Big Sky.  While being separate governmental entities, the district was operated as if it was one and the regular funding from property mill levies helped to better support department operations.  When it was later found that running the two districts together as one was actually improper, formal action was taken in 1994 to create the single Gallatin Canyon Consolidated Rural Fire District that spread across both counties.

In 1986, the McBride Family donated land in Westfork Meadows for the current Fire Station 1 to be built.  Local tradesmen performed much of the station construction and the station has had several additions since that time to accommodate growth.  This allowed the department to move from a smaller building that was converted to a home nearby.

Emergency medical services originally came by way of a private ambulance service from Bozeman, so it would be a long wait for help to arrive.  An attempt to address this was made in 1986, when a full time Emergency Medical Technician was hired.  Unfortunately, this person only remained only 5 months and for the next 7 years, volunteers continued to be the sole source of manpower.

With the formation of what was later to be known as the Big Sky Resort Area District (BSRAD) in 1992, a stable source of funding became available to strengthen operations.  It was decided to create an ambulance service and in 1993, the Gallatin Canyon Volunteer Fire Department hired  retired St. Paul, Minnesota Fire Department battalion chief Robert Stober, to be the first paramedic.  By 1994, Stober became the first paid fire chief of GCCRFD.

In 1997, Fire Station 2 was constructed on land donated by Boyne USA across Highway 64 from Big Sky Resort so that there was better fire department coverage on the mountain.

Upon the retirement of Chief Stober in 2003, Chief Jason Revisky took the helm and continued to guide the department’s two shifts of career members, who worked in Station 1 during the daytime hours and responded from their homes at night, supported by volunteer members throughout.  To better reflect the community that was being served, the Gallatin Canyon Consolidated Rural Fire District was renamed the Big Sky Fire Department in 2009..

This was also during one of the most impressive growth periods in Big Sky and the department’s emergency incident volume jumped drastically. Over time, the number of community members available for volunteering with the department declined as pressures from the incident volume grew.  This necessitated the steady addition of more career members in order to provide adequate services.

A 2005 study of the department’s operations recommended that at least 4 Firefighter/EMTs or Firefighter/Paramedics should be on duty in Fire Station 1 at any given time with the ultimate goal of 7 people per shift due to the anticipated growth.  In 2008, BSFD sought to increase its operating mill levy for the first time, hoping to hire enough career members to meet the needs outlined in the study.  Voters did not approve the request and BSFD continued to work diligently for the community while searching for a solution to this problem.

BSFD Since 2011

n early 2011, Chief Revisky resigned, and for the first time in its history, the department brought in leadership from outside of the organization.  After utilizing a consulting firm to assist with the search process, William Farhat was appointed the 9th Fire Chief of BSFD in September of 2011.

One month later, BSFD moved to have three shifts of 3 career Firefighters on duty in Station 1 at all times, along with the Fire Chief and the Administrative Assistant.  This drastically reduced the amount of time it took for a BSFD unit to be responding to a call, but there were still usually only two career members on duty and a dwindling number of volunteers, who were responding to less than 5% of the incidents.  This led to periods where there would be emergency incidents with a dangerously low amount of responders or no response from BSFD at all.

In 2012, BSFD again approached the community with a request for a mill levy increase.  The goal was to add 5 additional career members to improve the safety of department operations and improve service delivery.  This would not only increase the number of people on duty; it would also lead to a larger amount of people off duty career members who lived in the community and could respond during emergencies.  This mill levy was approved and 5 Firefighter/EMTs and 1 Firefighter/Paramedic were hired (one of these positions was to fill an existing vacancy) in 2013.

In 2013, the department began to compensate the volunteer members, making them on-call employees.  While not increasing the number of on-call employees, it helped those who sacrificed their personal time to serve our community so they were not financially burdened for their efforts.

In 2015, the department was able to demonstrate to the Big Sky Resort Area District (BSRAD) how the growth in development had been overwhelming the Fire Chief and Office Administrator’s positions with land use permits, pre-construction safety reviews, subdivision and final plat reviews, as well as, numerous requests for information and consultation.   In response, BSRAD approved the funding of a Deputy Fire Chief of Operations position, which was tasked with overseeing operations and training, freeing the Fire Chief to fulfill his other responsibilities.

In 2016, the department was able to find internal funding to hire a 15th career Firefighter and an Administrative Assistant.  Also in 2016, a master planning process was completed with the assistance of Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI).  It identified that there were several opportunities for improvement in regards to response times and adequate staffing for emergency incidents.  The Board of Trustees formally adopted the master plan in order to address current issues and prepare for future needs of the Big Sky community.

From this master plan, a comprehensive strategic plan was developed for both operational and fire station improvements.  For operations, the strategic plan added 9 career Firefighters, 3 Battalion Chiefs, a Deputy Chief of Community Risk Management, and a full time Training Captain.  With the assistance of BSRAD and funding from a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, the 3 Battalion Chief positions were added in 2017.

Also in 2017, BSFD placed a mill levy request before voters to not only fund the strategic plan’s remaining positions but to also remodel Fire Station 1 and creating sleeping facilities in Fire Station 2 so that it could have 24 hour staffing for the first time.  This mill levy increase was approved and in 2018, the fire station remodeling projects commenced along with the first phase of hiring, which consisted of 2 Firefighters and the Deputy Chief of Community Risk Management.

The station remodeling projects were completed in 2019 and the full time Training Captain was added to assure that the staff performance remained at a high level. In 2019 the Master Plan and a Standards of Cover document were updated, which will help BSFD prepare for the exponential growth being seen in the community.

As BSFD evolved and developed to meet the needs of the community, employee training has had to become more refined and formal, necessitating the on-call members to participate in additional mandatory training so their skills were adequate and that they could operate safely, especially in the firefighting positions. This required more frequent training, which required a greater time commitment by them. With these increases, our on-call firefighting staff was unable to keep up with training and their roles were reduced to an exterior, non-combat firefighting role in early 2017.

Even with the above reduction in their firefighting role, it was difficult for the on-call firefighters to participate in a manner that kept them safe and not possible for them to put in the time to be effective members of BSFD. Out of concern for safety, BSFD ended the on-call firefighter program in 2018, bringing 47 years of volunteer/on-call firefighting to a close.