After Jan. 1, there will be two fire departments inside the city limits of West Fargo, and by 2023, there could be three fire stations.
On Jan. 1, the West Fargo Fire Department will officially split into a city-owned and -operated department, covering all properties inside the city limits, and the West Fargo Rural Fire Department will cover rural West Fargo residents, including the Red River Valley Fairgrounds and Bonanzaville, as the two attractions remain outside West Fargo city limits. Reed Township residents will be covered by the Harwood Fire Department.
"So, there will be more oversight by elected officials on what the department is spending, and more importantly, we are providing the appropriate services to the community that it needs," Fire Chief Dan Fuller said.
The city department will continue to be a hybrid operation, which the department morphed into in 2018 using 18 full-time staff and firefighters along with paid, on-call volunteers. In 2019, the city department will have 21 full-time staff including a training chief and deputy chief and about 39 paid, on-call volunteers.
The rural department will continue to be an all volunteer unit and will rely on assistance from the city department when needed.
"Just like we have it now, the firefighters that are on duty, if they hear a rural call go out and it sounds like someone is trapped or the possibility of losing life, they are authorized to respond immediately without being called," Fuller said.
Most firefighters will either volunteer for the city or rural department, however, Fuller said some volunteers will serve dual roles.
Fuller said rural residents will likely not see much change in services or insurance costs. The process of divvying up assets between the two department, more than 5,000 items, began earlier this year and is now wrapping up.
The south side fire station, where a crew is on staff 24 hours a day, will become property of the city department, but the rural department will remain housed at the central station, where fire administration staff is housed, on First Street. Administration will remain at the central station, but it may one day move to a third fire station Fuller hopes can be constructed in the next three years.
Fuller said a third station will be needed to keep up with the growing demands of a booming city. Fire department calls have exponentially grown in the past five years and continue to increase each year.
He and city staff have been eyeing a commercial lot near 17th Street East and 12th Avenue, north of Menards, for the new station. Once a new station is built, staff would likely increase again.
"We’d be looking at adding another 14 firefighters and two battalion chiefs so one battalion chief is on duty for 24 hours with a four-person crew," Fuller said.
The move to be a city department will help with oversight as well as funding, he said. Although the rural department will have to continue to rely on grants and fundraising efforts, the city department will receive additional city tax dollars, continue to get state funding and can qualify for additional grants, including a potential federal grant that could help cover additional staff if a new station is built.
Fuller said his department is continually looking for grants and additional funding. He hopes to receive grant funding in the new year for updated helmets.
This year, City Administrator Tina Fisk requested an increase in mills to help fund the department with a total of 15.5 mills or $2.7 million in 2020. Fuller said the fire department's overall 2020 budget is about $3.2 million and generates dollars through other miscellaneous avenues and permit revenues.
In 2014, the West Fargo Fire Department's insurance rating, which is known by the Insurance Services Office Inc. ratings, was improved from a 5 to a 4. The ISO scale rates insurance policies on the scale of a 1 being the best rating and 10 equating to having no local fire services. Last year, Fuller proudly announced the rating was improved once again to a 3.
"For the city, we figured going form 4 to 3 saves us about $15 million in combined insurance savings over no department or having a 9," Fuller said. "But, some homeowners found they weren’t as tied to ISO as they used to be. Now they often use a three step scale, so the ISO rating can affect them less."
He said last week the department has invited ISO into the department once again, which hopes to improve even further.
The rural department will be led by longtime fire department staffers Chief Rory Jorgenson and Assistant Fire Chief Steve Baron.
Despite the split, Fuller said the two departments will continue to work together.
"It’s been a really good partnership with them and we know it will continue well into the future. "