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Polson city, rural fire departments split

POLSON — Rumblings among the membership, studies conducted to get to the bottom of the fire department’s unrest, resignations and hirings all stirred up with a busy fire season finally brought the implosion — the Polson Fire Department and the Polson Rural Fire District will be separate and distinct fire service organizations, according to a press release issued on Sept. 2 by Mark Shrives, Polson City Manager.

In a letter from Shrives to the PRFD, he said no money had been set aside in the Rural’s budget for the annual payment to the City of Polson. 

“This clearly indicates,” Shrives’ letter said, “that you have determined that the agreement is not renewed as required by paragraph II.”

The press release came as a surprise to the PRFD.

In response to the Shrives’ press release, Rural board chair R. Jack Clapp sent a letter to the volunteer firefighters.

Clapp’s letter said, “It has never been suggested by the Board that the interlocal agreement was not renewed and the board has been proceeding under the premise that it was.”

If neither party says no, the interlocal agreement stands.

“I think it’s the Rural’s strong desire that we find a way to form one district as called for in both studies,” Clapp said, in a phone interview.

“This is going to call for cooperation on the part of the city and the rural.”

As far as budgeting for the interlocal agreement, Clapp said one budget meeting could have amended the budget and allocated funds.

“The last action taken by the Rural Board was to inquire of the city manager if we could be afforded an opportunity at the next Polson City Commission meeting to discuss with the commission how we might move forward as one entity. This was the overarching recommendation of both studies. It appears the City is not interested in exploring this, given today’s response,” said Clapp’s letter to the firefighters.

In the future the two departments will assist each other through the use of a mutual aid agreement, Shrives said. 

“If you live in the city limits and need service — and a lot of times, it’s more than a fire — you call 911. If you live in the city, dispatch will page out Polson. If you live in the rural district, dispatch will page out the rural. Then, essentially, if the city or rural gets on scene and they say, ‘Wow, we need more equipment or help,’” Shrives said, “’There’s the mutual aid agreement.”   

How do the volunteer firefighters fit into this new scenario? 

“There is no clear plan. My understanding is, for this generation of firefighters, we all were hired as both City and Rural firefighters,” said Julie Sisler, president of the firefighters. “Any new firefighters hired will be either for the city or for the rural.” 

There will be two separate personnel files — one for the City and one for the Rural, she said. 

There will be a big membership meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8, Sisler said. 

The ramifications are huge. 

“Do we want to keep one membership? That would dictate how we do training?” Sisler asked. 

Then there’s all the accumulated stuff — trucks, turnouts and other gear.

With items, including vehicles, owned by the city, the rural and the membership, Sisler said divvying it up is “going to be nightmarish.”

The problems the PFD and the PRFD were having were addressed when Chief Curt Belts, retired Missoula Rural Fire District Fire Chief, conducted a review of the Polson Fire Department and released his findings this spring. Emergency Services Consulting International completed a fire department evaluation in 2913.

Belts and the ESCI both brought up the fact that the PFD and the PRFD work together through an inter-local agreement and share the services of the fire chief. The PFD is governed by the City of Polson; the PRFD has an elected board of trustees; and the membership of the PFD votes on new members.

“While all three have a vested interest in the success of the PFD, each one has a different idea of how that should be accomplished and their own expectation of the fire chief,” Belts said in his review. “The lack of a unified form of governance causes great frustration where the fire chief is concerned.” 

At the time Belts’ study was released, Clapp said, “The one predominate issue that came out of both studies was that the PRFD and the PFD form one entity to join together.”

When Polson Fire Chief John resigned on June 29, he remained on as chief of the rural district. Former Police Police Assistant Chief Clint Cottle was selected as chief of the PFD, even though he had no fire experience. That leadership has continued.   

All parties — the city, the rural and the membership — do agree on something. 

 “In spite of all our anger, when the tones go off, it’s for the people. It’s not necessarily who’s in charge,” Sisler said.


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