Billings Fire Chief Pepper Valdez has seen a lot of changes in his 20 plus years on the job, including more calls for fires, wrecks, rescues, and other emergencies.
“Since 2010, our call volume has increased 76 percent,” says Valdez in a recent interview.
But the city’s increase in violent crime is also impacting the fire department.
“Most medical calls come with a medical component to it, so that’s why we go with PD oftentimes. So that’s gone up. It’s weird, the lack of respect for authority has gone down,” the chief says.
If the $7.1 million public safety mill levy is approved, the Billings Fire Department would receive $1.5 million. It would be enough to add a permanent fire marshal and logistics officer, but the biggest chunk—$1 million—would be used to establish medical response teams.
These two-person teams with light vehicles would roll out to non-life-threatening incidents instead of the big engines, eventually saving both time and money.
“It saves the wear and tear. Maintenance costs go down. Fuel usage goes down. It does. It’s weird to think that we are asking people to invest a lot upfront, but then on the back end we should see some decreases on fuel cost and maintenance,” says Valdez.
The chief says money from the levy will also help address the problem of super users—people on the streets who police and fire are called out to respond to again and again.
“We have the ability to pair our paramedics with a mental health professional and get them into more definitive care without the use of the big fire engines, a police car and so forth. We also have the capabilities of doing community paramedicine, so that’s a team that can go into these individuals' homes, make sure that they are taking the proper medications, make sure they are doing all their follow-ups with their doctors and so forth that cuts down on costs to us taxpayers significantly.”
The levy would raise taxes on a home valued at $217,000 by about $100 a year. While Billings voters came through in the clutch last year to help plug a deficit in the budget by repealing and replacing the previous levy to generate more money, it may be a tougher sell this year.
Chief Valdez believes it's worth it and says demands will only increase as the city continues to grow.
“The city of Billings and the citizens here deserve the best and we feel like we can increase that quality of life with this levy ask,” the chief says.