Third Payson Fire Station Spells Trouble For Hellsgate

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The Hellsgate Fire Department may have to lay off firefighters and shift back to one-man trucks as a result of Payson’s surprise move to build a third fire station.

Payson recently announced plans to spend about $1.5 million in leftover bonding authority to build an innovative fire station at the intersection of Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway for about half the cost of a normal fire station.

The third fire station will likely make it unnecessary to continue paying Hellsgate $160,000 annually under the terms of an “automatic response” agreement to respond to fire and medical calls on the town’s eastern border and to provide backup, said Town Councilor Mike Vogel.

Hellsgate also protects Star Valley and last year answered about 480 calls in Payson under the terms of its “automatic response” agreement.

Those Payson calls accounted for nearly one-third of all of Hellsgate’s calls, according to Hellsgate Chief Gary Hatch.

“Nobody from Payson has called us,” said Hatch. “We heard about it in the newspaper. We were surprised.”

Hatch said Hellsgate has a $2.1-million budget, but that includes grants and contracts to help the Forest Service fight wildfires. The $160,000 from Payson was part of the department’s core $1.2-million operations budget, so the loss could force layoffs. Hellsgate has 11 paid firefighters and about 27 certified volunteers, said Hatch.

The department currently has five trucks at the Star Valley station, which normally carry two-man crews. Hatch said that might have to change, but said volunteers and schedule juggling will ensure adequate manpower on the scene of fire and medical calls.

“Don’t get me wrong, another fire station on the mountain will be a blessing. It’s good for us, it’s good for Payson — I just don’t know how they’re going to raise the money to staff it.”

Operating costs estimated at $900,000

Hatch estimated the operating costs for the new station could top $900,000 annually. Payson normally puts two or three firefighters on a truck. Since fire crews must respond around the clock, the town will have to hire three or four firefighters for each man on a fire truck.

Payson’s decision to build a third fire station will not only likely cancel out the “automatic response” agreement, it will also likely burn down a plan to build a jointly operated fire station with a possible federal grant in Star Valley.

Hatch noted that the new station will provide better coverage along Payson’s eastern border, but estimated it will only cut one or two minutes off the response time to the luxury houses at the Knolls and Chaparral Pines.

If true, that could undercut one of the key arguments in favor of a third Payson fire station at that location. The developers of Chaparral Pines had hoped the 2004 bond issue would provide a nearby fire station and had reportedly put up about $134,000 to pay for infrastructure costs, including a contribution towards a fire station.

Response time cut questioned

Hatch disputed suggestions that the new Payson fire station could cut response times from 7 or 8 minutes in Chaparral Pines to 3 or 4 minutes.

As an example, he cited a recent fire that destroyed two luxury homes in Chaparral Pines. It took fire crews just under eight minutes to arrive from the time of the first of 13 phone calls to the dispatch center, run by Payson. However, Hatch said he had reviewed the tapes and concluded it took dispatchers 2.5 minutes to piece together enough information to dispatch the crews from the hazy accounts of multiple callers.

Once the fire trucks got the order to roll, the Hellsgate truck arrived within five minutes, he said. A truck dispatched from the location of the new Payson station could have gotten there about one minute sooner, which would not have changed the outcome of the fire.

Hatch said the fire started on the porch of one house and spread through radiant heat to the attic of an adjoining house.

Payson had the first truck on the scene, which initially concentrated on saving a third adjoining house after determining the two houses already on fire were not salvageable.

The next-arriving Hellsgate truck was already too late to save the house with the fire in the attic, said Hatch. Trucks would have had to arrive about five minutes sooner to save that second house.

Hellsgate had hoped to jointly operate a new fire station not far from Payson’s proposed new site. Payson had applied for federal stimulus money to build a $3.8-million fire station off Highway 260, from which Payson, Hellsgate and Forest Service crews would operate. Hellsgate had just signed a lease-purchase contract to buy a $350,000 piece of land about 1.5 miles further down Highway 260. It wouldn’t make sense to build that station if Payson builds a station at Tyler Parkway and Highway 260. Hatch estimated his department would lose about $15,000 if it cancelled the land purchase agreement.

“It was kind of shocking, but I wish them the best of luck,” said Hatch. “We have a good working relationship (with the Payson Fire Department). It’s a brotherhood — we will risk everything to save one another’s lives and we don’t want this to change — no matter what the politics are.”

Vice Mayor Vogel, a former firefighter, headed up the town’s eight-month effort to find a way to lower the cost of a proposed third fire station.

Payson representatives spent hours looking for a piece of land and reviewing fire station designs possible with the leftover bond money. The town had abandoned plans several years ago to build a third fire station due to the cost.

However, Vogel located the vacant land for about $350,000 at the corner of Tyler Parkway and convinced the architect-owner to throw in a complete set of plans for the new fire station — a savings of maybe $50,000.

The plans envision a ground floor, drive-through bay for the engines, with the offices and crew’s quarters overhead on the second floor, jutting out from the hillside. Behind the fire station, the land includes enough land to build a police and fire training facility, which could be used by public safety agencies throughout the region.

Vogel also located a fire truck at about half the normal cost and a low-cost, almost prefabricated fire station design.

Vogel has said he kept the negotiations quiet to get a good deal on land, prevent the development of political opposition and avoid adding a lot of bells and whistles to the basic fire station and truck to keep the price under the $1.5-million bond limit.

However, town officials haven’t yet worked out the budgetary details on staffing the new station — which could run to nearly $1 million annually.

The town recently went through a round of cutbacks and layoffs, on top of a pay and hiring freeze. The town hopes to start construction on the new station within several months.

Moreover, Payson hopes that it will land federal grants to pay the salaries of the additional firefighters. The federal SAFER program pays some or all of the salaries of new firefighters for up to five years, normally with a substantial local match, which Congress waived for grants in 2009 and 2010.

If Payson can land a federal grant for the new station, it would postpone the budget impact of the added firefighters for several years.

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