District growing pains

POST FALLS – When Kootenai County Fire and Rescue averages more than a dozen emergencies in a day, paramedic firefighter Jim Oxenrider doesn’t have “a lot of time to function between calls.”

“Before you get back to the station, you’re already going to another call,” said Oxenrider, who has worked for Kootenai County for six years. Compared with last year at this time, the agency has fielded roughly 100 more calls, he said. “It’s gotten a lot more busy.”

It’s a common theme with local fire departments, whose leaders say that the rapid growth in Kootenai County is igniting greater demand for services, running departments ragged and scorching records for the number of emergencies each year.

“The way things go around here is that our numbers just keep going up and up and up,” said Chief Ron Sampert, of Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. “Everybody is getting beat up the same way we are.”

Since 2002, the number of emergency calls has increased by nearly 35 percent, according to Kootenai County Fire and Rescue, which serves 113 square miles in Post Falls, Stateline, Huetter, Fernan Village and Dalton Gardens. In the coming year, the agency is expected to exceed 4,000 calls, Sampert said.

For the Northern Lakes Fire Protection District, which covers 107 square miles in the Rathdrum and Hayden area, the number of emergency calls has nearly doubled since 2002.

And the area’s growth isn’t expected to slow. Last year, Kootenai County grew by about 3,785 people, or about 3 percent, for a total population of 131,507, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last week.

The county is the third fastest-growing urban center in Idaho and the 56th fastest growing in the nation.

Local fire department officials say they’re working to stay ahead of the growth, scrambling to maintain staffing levels and trying to strategically plan for the future.

The Northern Lakes Fire Protection District considered last month asking voters to double the levy amount the district receives from property taxpayers – an effort to add more staff and resources to the stretched district.

Commissioners agreed to postpone the decision on an override levy until fire officials collect another year’s worth of data and growth projections, Chief Marion Blackwell said.

The district now receives 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, Blackwell said. According to Idaho law, , the district is capped at a 3 percent budget increase each year, he said.

Last year, the cost of health insurance increased 10 percent, and electricity costs jumped 18 percent, said Blackwell, who has a staff of 35 at six stations.

“We’re in kind of a unique situation. Our only remedy to this is to go to the taxpayers,” Blackwell said.

The march of growth continues to stretch the district “thinner and thinner and thinner,” said Northern Lakes Fire Marshal Dean Marcus. In the Hayden area, roughly 3,500 subdivision homes are in the infant planning stages, he said.

“If they all come true, that’s quite an impact on the immediate area,” Marcus said. “We have growing pains. Every time something increases, it impacts us. “

If the district’s call volume continues at its expected pace, it will run more than 7,000 calls by the year 2020, Blackwell estimates.

“We’re holding our own, but if we don’t do something in the next four years, there could be some substantial delays. …We gotta be able to put on new personnel,” Blackwell said. “We don’t want anyone to wait for service.

“We can see the freight train coming,” he said. “We’re trying to get ahead of it.”

Kootenai County Fire and Rescue officials say they’re maintaining an adequate level of service – but they’re struggling to keep up with staffing levels.

“We have added additional employees every year, but it does not keep pace with the growth that’s out there,” Chief Sampert said. “We’re still behind in that realm.”

Last year, the district added a volunteer manager to the staff of about 50, Sampert said.

In an ideal situation, the agency would have 18 personnel respond to a structure fire. With the current staffing levels, the agency now can respond with 10 personnel, Sampert said.

“We’re a ways off from the ideal number,” Sampert said.

The district, which has seven stations and a boathouse, prides itself on the quality training it gives staff members, helping boost efficiency and response times, Sampert said. The agency, for example, is adding a training ground in the coming year, he said.

With the Post Falls area and the county growing at about 3 to 4 percent each year, the agency also needs to add about 4 percent to the number of personnel “if we want to maintain the level we’re at right now,” Sampert said.

“It doesn’t get us any further ahead,” he said. “If we aren’t falling backwards, that’s a good thing, I guess.”

Kootenai County Fire and Rescue added medical emergency response about six years ago, increasing strain on the agency’s services, Sampert said. Medical emergencies can make up about three-fourths of the agency’s calls, officials said.

“That has impacted us a great deal,” Sampert said. “My guys are just run ragged.”

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