Payson Cuts New Deal With Hellsgate Fire

Neighboring department will continue to back Payson crews for $130,000 annually

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A cash-strapped Payson this year trimmed by $10,000 its agreement to get help fighting fires from neighboring Hellsgate Fire Department.

The council last week approved a $130,000 contract with the fire department that protects Star Valley, Christopher Creek and Kohl's Ranch.

Crews from Hellsgate respond to about 120 calls a year in Payson, while Payson crews provide aid on calls in the neighboring community about a dozen times annually, according to Payson Fire Chief Martin deMasi.

Normally, police and fire departments provide backup for one another on big calls without charge. But the Hellsgate responds to so many more calls in Payson, that the town decided to enter into a contract.

The cost of the arrangement has escalated sharply in recent years -- rising from $20,000 in 2000 and to a projected $200,000 at the end of the current contract in 2012.

The arrangement reduces response times by several minutes in the east end of Payson and compensates for the indefinite delay in building a third fire station, according to deMasi. A new fire station would cost about $3 million to build and about $800,000 annually to staff, he estimated.

The contract with Hellsgate was originally considered a temporary stop-gap until Payson could build and staff a third fire station. Voters approved a bond issue to build a variety of firefighting facilities, but higher than expected costs essentially ate up all the bond money before the town got around to building a promised third fire station.

In the past year, response times town-wide stand at about 4 to 5 minutes.

The department's goal is to respond in 5 minutes or less to 90 percent of calls. Last year, 85 percent of calls resulted in response times of less than 5 minutes. But response times are still longer at the eastern edge of town, where the Hellsgate trucks coming from Star Valley are often the first vehicles on scene to calls from Chaparral Pines and the Rim Club.

Chief deMasi estimated the arrangement with Hellsgate cuts perhaps two minutes off response times in the east end of the town. Building a third fire station would cut perhaps another two minutes off, bringing average response time in that area down under 5 minutes.

"Two minutes can make a tremendous difference," said deMasi.

A recent house fire in central Payson demonstrated the impact of response times. In that case, firefighters managed to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby neighboring homes but the house was completely engulfed -- even though the first crews arrived within two minutes of receiving the call.

The great majority of the 120 times a year that Hellsgate crews respond to incidents in Payson involve medical calls and simply standing by as backup when both the on-duty Payson crews are on a call.

The Hellsgate crews provided the first response on about 30 calls last year. About 70 percent of the calls involved medical emergencies rather than fires.

In Payson, fire crews with paramedics on board respond to 911 medical emergency calls and usually arrive a couple of minutes before the ambulance, which is dispatched at the same time.

A couple of minutes can also be a big deal when dealing with a medical situation in which someone has stopped breathing.

"Just try holding your breath for two minutes," said deMasi.

Still, the council this year asked deMasi to try to save some money on the Hellsgate contract, when he initially asked for $140,000. He was able to negotiate the $10,000 reduction, but the contract still calls for payments to rise to $200,000 over the next four years.

A sharp drop in impact fees and a flattening of sales tax revenue this year created a budget crisis in Payson, prompting the town council to search the municipal seat cushions for spare change. In addition to limiting overtime for police and fire, the council postponed continued upgrades on fire stations.

All told, Hellsgate will answer about 100 calls more than Payson, as a result of the mutual aid agreement.

That means each time the Hellsgate crews respond in Payson it will cost an average of about $1,300, although the agreement sets a flat fee rather than charging for each call.

However, deMasi said the arrangement is still significantly cheaper than building and staffing a third fire department, although that's still the strongly preferred option for the fire department should money become available.

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