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Resources up, emergencies down for Arlee Volunteer Fire Department

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ARLEE — A lot can happen in a year, and Arlee Fire Chief Ken Light is glad to be counting his blessings after 2010.

Last January, the Arlee Volunteer Fire Department moved into a brand new facility that replaced the old building — formerly the town jail — that had housed the department for half a century.

“We’re so visible now,” Light said of the new location. “You’re driving to Arlee, and what do you see? This beautiful new fire hall.”

But state-of-the-art facilities like this don’t come easily. It took eight years of planning, grant-writing and countless volunteer hours to be able to break ground on the new building. In 2001, the fire board first met with the Montana Department of Transportation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the county commissioners to discuss options for moving the fire hall; the only problem was, the all-volunteer department had no way to pay for a new building or even a building site. And it wasn’t until four years later that MDT agreed to provide a “functional replacement” for the old building through a grant, completely covering the cost of the building so no local taxes were affected.

Even then, the board still didn’t have a place to build. But board member Steve Matt, who’s also a tribal member, got the ball rolling with CSKT, and in 2006, the Tribes agreed to lease the fire department an acre of land at an unbeatable price — $1 per year for 25 years, with an option to renew for the following 25 years.

“They came through really nice, getting us this site … This thing didn’t just sprout from the ground like a mushroom,” Light said. “We worked on this for a long time.”

And all that work paid off. Now Arlee has a fire hall supplied with top-notch equipment that would send “a lot of fire departments with towns the size of Arlee … to heaven, if they had this,” Light said.

The old fire hall only had space to house four vehicles, so the chief usually had to park a quick response truck in his yard. Now the department has six vehicles, including a new ambulance and crash rescue truck purchased last year. Other new additions in 2010 included a $20,000 Lifepak 15 monitor/defibrillator paid for mostly by an MDT grant and a thermal imaging camera bought with funds raised at the annual July 4 firefighters’ pancake breakfast. A 25,000-gallon underground water tank with a pump for filling fire trucks, a diesel generator and an upgraded antenna for radio communications were also recently installed at the fire hall.

“Having this building has been a tremendous boost to everything we do,” Light said. “Everything is so much easier to take care of when you have the space to work in.”

Not only did 2010 bring a new fire hall and a variety of new equipment, but the department also received fewer emergency calls. Arlee Fire responded to 192 calls in 2010, down from 224 in 2009 and 245 in 2008, a trend that Light believes has a twofold cause: people aren’t traveling as much because of economic hardship, and the improvements to U.S. Highway 93 have made the road safer.

“Something’s going on, because we’re having fewer wrecks,” Light said. “The new highway has had a significant impact on the safety of our district … (at least) it seems that way right now.”

The department mostly handles ambulance calls and car wrecks; about 70 percent of calls are medical, Light said.

“The rest is all the fire stuff,” he said.

Along with all the perks of the department’s new home, Light said the main challenge is keeping the utility bills at a manageable level — heating the 7,000-square-foot building isn’t cheap. And there’s always work to be done to improve the department’s services, such as updating bylaws and personnel rules and improving the department’s record-keeping and reporting system.

“Now the job is to keep on working to develop the department,” Light said. “I’m really proud of the job we do, and we’re always challenged to do better.”

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