Local fire and emergency medical services took center stage during the first day of the Local Government Interim Committee’s Nov. 8-9 meeting, followed on the second day by an immersion into local government services, budgeting, and finance.
As requested in Senate Joint Resolution 21 and House Joint Resolution 25, the committee is studying local volunteer fire and emergency medical service systems in the state and statutes governing municipal fire departments.
In 2007 and 2008, legislative committees examined numerous aspects of local volunteer fire and emergency medical services. The Fire Suppression Committee studied stresses on volunteer fire departments in the wake of an extreme 2007 wildfire season; the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee studied emergency medical services; and the Legislative Audit Division conducted a performance audit of emergency medical services and the regulatory and licensing roles of the Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Board of Medical Examiners. For the purposes of the SJR 21 study, the Local Government Interim Committee is following up on the work completed a decade ago, learning of changes made and recommendations implemented, and gauging the viability and sustainability of these systems now as demand grows, demographics shift, and resources dwindle. The committee learned that, although some aspects of volunteer fire and emergency medical service delivery have seen improvements and realized efficiencies, challenges remain, primary among them the decline in people willing and able to volunteer as demand for services and expectations of volunteers grow. Having been educated on the topic and the needs that remain, the committee plans to explore in more detail proposed strategies to alleviate pressure on the volunteer systems.
HJR 25 requests examination of fire protection by municipal fire departments and the statutes that govern how protection must be provided based on population. Committee staff, representatives of cities, and municipal and rural firefighters reported on municipal populations, classification of municipalities, and how population changes trigger statutes that dictate the type of fire protection provided to a community. Those who commented on the study offered information about regional fire authorities allowed under Washington state law and a statutory mechanism provided for in numerous states to authorize a city of any size to annex on to a rural fire district for fire protection services. A group of interested stakeholders will meet to discuss potential legislation to present to the committee in March.
The perspective of fire chiefs and firefighters has been critical to the committee’s understanding of the issues that prompted both interim studies, and their continued participation will be a key component of the committee’s ongoing work.
On Nov. 9, the committee’s focus shifted to local government operations. The Montana State University Local Government Center’s director described the services the center offers—from training and education to research and technical assistance, all with an eye toward fulfilling the center’s mission to strengthen the capacity of the state’s local government units. The Montana Association of Counties and the Department of Administration’s Local Government Services Bureau gave a crash course in local government budgeting, and members of the 1999-2000 Local Government Funding and Structure Committee explained the genesis of the local government entitlement share, highlighting the importance of the agreement between the state and cities and counties that paved the way for creation of the funding mechanism. The former members agreed that the entitlement share is working as they and the Legislature intended, but cautioned that legislators’ understanding of how and why it was created will be essential to its continued success.
The Local Government Interim Committee meets next on March 14-15. For information about the committee, visit the committee’s website or contact Leanne Kurtz, committee staff.