DEPARTMENT HISTORY IN BRIEF
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 for the Gallatin County portion of Big Sky and the other for the Madison County portion. 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 tradesman 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 is now owned by the Big Sky Water & Sewer District.
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. While professionally designed and constructed, there was again a large amount of work done by community volunteers to help keep costs down.
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.
Volunteers have been the foundation of BSFD and while they became paid on-call employees in 2013, the spirit of their willingness to help their community continues. As the number of emergency incidents increased in Big Sky, the strain upon volunteer members was evident as the department struggled to respond with an appropriate amount of manpower.
Emergency medical services would come via private ambulance 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 5 months, so 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, better funding became available to strengthen operations. It was decided to create an ambulance service and in 1993, the Gallatin Canyon Volunteer Fire Department hired Robert Stober, a retired St. Paul, Minnesota Fire Department battalion chief, to be the first paramedic. By 1994, Stober became the first paid fire chief of GCVFD.
Over time, the number of community members available for volunteering with the department declined as the incident volume grew. With this growth came the slow addition of more career members in order to be able provide adequate services.
Upon the retirement of Chief Stober in 2003, Chief Jason Revisky took the helm and continued the 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.
This was also during one of the most impressive growth periods in Big Sky and the department’s emergency incident volume jumped drastically. In 2008, BSFD sought to increase its operating mill levy for the first time, hoping to hire enough career members to meet response needs. A 2005 study of the department’s operations recommended that at least 4 Firefighter/EMTs or Firefighter/Paramedics should be on duty at any given time and this goal was emphasized during the mill levy effort. 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
In early 2011, the Chief Revisky resigned and for the first time in its history, the department brought in leadership from the 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 having three shifts of career firefighters on duty in Station 1 at all times, now totaling 9 members, excluding the fire chief. This drastically reduced the amount of time it took for a BSFD unit to be responding to a call.
While a great improvement in the delivery of emergency services, 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 2013, BSFD again approached the community with a request for a mill levy increase. The goal was to add 5 additional career members to stabilize department operations. 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). With that, over half of the career members of the department had been hired since 2011, creating an opportunity for growth in numbers and in the department’s abilities.
Also in 2013, the department began to compensate the volunteer members, making them on-call employees. While not increasing the number of on-call employees, this has made it that those who respond during emergencies were not financially burdened for their efforts.
In 2015, the department was able to demonstrate to the 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’s position, which will be tasked with overseeing operations and training, freeing the fire chief to better fulfill his other responsibilities.
In 2016, the department was able to find internal funding to hire a 15th career Firefighter/EMT and a part-time Administrative Assistant. Also in 2016, a master planning process was completed and 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 a master plan developed with the assistance of Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) and BSFD will be using it to prepare for the future needs of the Big Sky community.